They’ve been considered the untapped sector of golf, but they’re coming. It’s time to apply a different lens to the emergence of women and girls in golf.
What do butterflies and women’s golf have in common? More than you might think. Beyond the simple superstition that a kiss from this ethereal creature to a golf ball is a sign of good luck, butterflies are generally symbolic of renewal, hope, endurance, courage and change.
Butterflies do not evolve from smaller to larger versions of themselves. Rather, they undergo complete metamorphosis from egg to larva (caterpillar) to pupa (chrysalis) before emerging in final form. Women’s sport – of which golf is a sub-species – has also evolved in stages rather than on a continuum.
To see how far Australian women’s golf has come – and what comes next – we first need to examine some numbers.
The participation ratio of females to men in the modern era peaked at 34 percent in 1970, 51 years ago. By 2018, when Golf Australia launched Vision 2025 and the R&A its Women in Golf Charter – both a call to action – this was down to 20 percent. By the end of 2019, momentum had shifted positively.
Then, the pandemic.
Figures from the New Member Demand in Australian Golf Clubs published in November 2020 show a boom in numbers. Against this is the sobering figure that only 12 percent of the increase was in females, effectively lowering the participation ratio.
But numbers do not tell the whole story and club membership is not the only measure of participation.
“There’s been an increase in the ‘raw’ overall female engagement figure, just not proportionately to men,” said Chyloe Kurdas, Female Engagement Senior Manager at Golf Australia. “During COVID, they were perhaps more likely to be hanging out in the lesson space, in the social club space, in the public facility space rather than joining a club.”
Add to that alternative ways to ‘consume’ golf other than membership – public golf, driving ranges, resort courses, social golf, mini golf, adventure golf, simulators, Holey Moley, TopGolf, park golf, disc golf, and other forms – and it becomes apparent that the actual number of women and girls involved in golf is substantially higher than just the number of club members.
That’s the good news. But the ratio is still an issue. As Kurdas acknowledged, “There’s more work to be done. And that’s why we’ve moved from awareness raising to an action-taking phase.”
This includes clubs and organisations building action plans that suit their particular need and circumstance, based on information and resources provided initially through the Vision 2025 national roadshows and then the Even Par program which assists clubs in reviewing gender neutral strategies.
Golf Australia is compiling Visionary Case Studies, examples of steps taken around the country in clubs large and small, metropolitan and regional. Each month a selected case is featured, reflecting the diversity of strategies.
“Now we have stories to tell, whereas at the start we didn’t,” Kurdas said. “There’s no silver bullet, you’ve got to do a bit of everything. What the Visionaries of the Month are rewarding, what we’re celebrating, is the actual innovation brought to the implementation of whatever they did.”
Like our little butterfly, women’s golf is moving from the larva stage (where it was at its most active and also most vulnerable) to the chrysalis stage, during which startling transformation takes place and from whence it will emerge fully developed.
There’s a lot to navigate, though, and it’s coming from all directions.
Retention is, frankly, key. If we recruit X percent each year, we need to retain at least that to have nett gain over anticipated losses.
To achieve this, we need to move beyond the static measure of only recording data or prioritising entry via private clubs.
The role of public golf cannot be underestimated in either engagement or retention. For many, its accessibility for all, low cost, and no fuss culture devoid of dress regulations makes it both part of a journey towards club membership or a destination in itself. It is an easier place for beginners to start and elderly members to finish. And without doubt, it is the most inclusive of all facilities.
Then there’s the aforementioned consumer points of golf, all of which form potential entry and retention points. For the entire ecosystem of golf to operate efficiently, we need all of these to be healthy.
Amongst the numbers produced, there is considerable concern over age groups. The average age of club members is 56.3 years, of which males average 54.7 and females 63.9 years. The pyramid of figures indicates that males predominate below 50 and above 70 years and females between 50 and 70 years. The group of females aged 25-50 years, where the ratio appears at its worst, is considered of particular concern.
The only problem with age-related studies is that they are narrow and don’t entirely relate to the female experience. Age is really only relevant up to around 18, possibly slightly less, when people leave secondary school and head in different directions.
From here on, people respond to the demands their life is asking, regardless of what age that occurs. After all, one can be a mother of young children anywhere between 18 and 50 years.
So, let’s look at it through the lens of stage groups rather than limit ourselves to particular age groups.
“It becomes apparent that the actual number of women and girls involved in golf is substantially higher than just the number of club members.”
A ‘straw poll’ of 14 different stages of females reveals some interesting information. These stages were loosely defined as primary, secondary and university students, mothers of pre-schoolers, primary school children and teenagers, career women with and without family, sole family providers, empty nesters, retired, elderly, women with disability and multicultural women. A 15th category of ‘girl dads’ was included.
Why did we go about it this way? Because although engagement of that poorly represented 25-50 years group is essential, it’s not the whole story if we are looking for overall retention. And including all stages represents best not only that women’s lives are layered but that golf is the game for all.
There is not the room here to dissect this in detail, nor is it a formal study, but its premise and findings suggest that a formally designed research project of this nature could prove useful.
Key findings of accessibility, equality of opportunity, time, cost and culture were not surprising but some responses were, supporting the notion that different stages command different needs. Interestingly, the factor of intimidation was most felt by women over the age of 50. It would seem ageism needs addressing if we are to be truly inclusive.
The biggest question to come out of it is how best to marry the varying needs and allow female players to move comfortably from one stage to another.
From the respondents come some ideas to take beyond those already being addressed:
Dress: Allow athletic wear (including shoes which do not damage the greens) because it’s an athletic activity. This also makes it ‘cooler’ with the young. Refusing jeans is ancient.
Competition: Lose the focus on competition and allow social rounds on timesheets. Conversely, allow competitions to run all day, not just in morning windows. Mix up formats and have more team events, particularly those that lend themselves to shorter timeframes.
Time: Provide one-tee starts, the most inclusive of them all. They may not be as social but they allow students, mums, workers of any category, elderly and those carrying disability to play at a time that is convenient, not prescribed.
Inclusion and disability: As this is a broad category, there are broad needs. Google Translate on websites and booking pages is an easy start for multicultural players. The sensitivity to ask what is needed for all and the commitment to make it available via practical applications is another.
Membership: Consider options that include paying a lower annual fee but a higher ‘green fee’ (i.e. user pays) for those who want an attachment to a club but play irregularly. And options matching stages rather than ages, which can be entered accordingly.
Then there’s some next frontier suggestions, ideas which extend the boundaries considerably:
Childcare: Childcare provision is an important part of the conversation. Crèches at golf facilities, clinics that allow mums to bring babies, a modification to prams/strollers that allows clubs to be attached warrant thought. Not only do we cater for mothers but we introduce youngsters at an early age to the golf course setting, which can offset some need for formal introductory programs later.
Course set-up: In her article Let Them Score, Golfweek writer Beth Ann Nichols asserted that golf courses should be set up so that female players approach greens with a similar scoring club in their hands as males. At Tour level, when this happens the accuracy and scoring rate has been shown to be highly comparable.
“We don’t want to see a pitch-and-putt every week but of the dozens of players consulted, nearly all believe that more reachable par-5s and more drivable par-4s … would make the product stronger and their jobs more fun,” concluded Nichols.
This, of course, has ramifications down the line – for more exciting play, marketability, sponsorship and creation of role models at tour level, as well as enjoyment, participation, retention and pace of play at club level.
To those who would argue that women are playing the course the way it was meant, the answer is, you’re right. But remember this, courses were almost uniformly designed by men, for men. That male players have outgrown these courses is a different discussion.
Course architecture: Canadian golf course architect and leading voice in design to accommodate women, Christine Fraser contends that the experience of women is nuanced and not always reflected in management, maintenance or architectural decisions.
“Overlooking our experience has created social closure where many women feel unwelcome, discouraged and drop out of golf, thereby perpetuating the gender imbalance so detrimental to the sustainability of golf. We need to address this on the ground as well,” she said.
Fraser’s considered thoughts on issues such as forward tees, hazard placement, ground contouring, mowing patterns, height of cut and, yes, the provision of adequate toilet facilities on course need addressing.
Culture: The big one, the toughest of all. Where do we start? Being welcoming, being kind, being generous in all ways is paramount. Welcoming means everyone. Acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we play. Ensuring that programs for women, girls and gender diverse folks include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, multicultural citizens and players with disability.
And beyond. Across the board, women are engaging in all aspects of the golf industry. But it needs to go further. We need women in leadership roles to be part of making decisions, not just assisting or being the recipient thereof.
In many areas we still have men telling women what men think women need. What we need is a collaborative process – co-creation – in which women are more deeply involved with shaping their future. Happily, those men that ask and then listen are there, and they are growing in number.
From the beginning, golf has been its own recruitment agency, with the game largely regenerated through families. This is still the case, but it now needs to be its own marketing agency as well.
We need to sell our story better and to the broader market. We need to ask: what will the golfer of 30-40-50 years from now look like? And adapt to it.
We also need to tell our story better. With all the good things underway in golf, we have a great story to tell, one that increasingly defies the narrow stereotypes which have created negative and inaccurate perceptions of the game that have deterred entry by non-subscribers.
But how do we do this when most of the stories about golf are no more than preaching to the choir? How can we move from the church and out into the community?
Back to engagement we go.
Recruit non-golfers and assist them to recruit non-golfers. Latch on to celebrities and disrupters who happen to love the game and can change the culture and profile. Broaden our reach through TV, the major media platform. It’s a costly exercise but it’s one that could be achieved using the combined resources of bodies and organisations throughout the golf industry which all stand to gain.
The summer coverage of local events such as The Players Series, The Athena and the NSW and Queensland Opens via PGA TV and its production partners showed the potential to not only highlight domestic events but create role models – so essential to female engagement – from aspiring players.
Golf resources are stretched compared to other sports. But wouldn’t it be amazing to produce a funky ad of the ilk of the Suncorp Team Girls netball one, played in prime time. In just one minute, the girls captured a lot of other girls with their message, “First we whispered, now we roar!”
We have seen it work in golf. The catchy, “How you like me now?” from the eight youngsters featured in the 2013 Netflix documentary The Short Game created interest in the US. And many Australian kids would have noticed exceptional Sydney junior golfer Sahara ‘The Weapon’ Hillman-Varma feature on the Extraordinary Me section on Nickelodeon. A weapon, indeed.
With a great story and a medium in which to tell it, it becomes possible to push through previously intransigent barriers. We have been told that sponsorship dollars follow success. Yet the 2021 study, Closing the Visibility Gap, found that with visibility, women’s sport has the facility to generate significant revenue and create success, to marry social impact with commercial profit.
So, back to our developing butterfly. Her metamorphosis is the transition that underpins evolution. Her DNA doesn’t alter, just her form, a response to the surrounding environment.
Like her, women and girls in golf are still evolving. We are in a chrysalis moment, preparing to complete the final stage of development to emerge as fully functional, independent beings of equal respect and diversity in the game. To spread our wings and fly, free of all restriction, into a glorious future.