I know, I know, you’ve heard just about enough about what we need to do to grow, or even save the game of golf. You’re tired of hearing about slow play, the short attention span of millennials, the aging baby-boomers, the consequences of overdevelopment, or the aftermath of the Great Recession. And you just can’t stomach one more pundit claiming all we need is for Tiger to start winning (or even playing) again, and/or how we really just need the next Tiger to come along and save us. If it isn’t obvious by now that pinning our hopes on either of those scenarios is a fool’s errand I don’t know what is, but then what’s left? Well maybe there is one thing you haven’t heard discussed, and when it comes to the health of the game, that one thing might just turn out to be the “Holy Grail” of player development and retention.
Sigmund Freud once said, “The great question that has never been answered, and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is ‘What does a woman want?'” Now I’m no Freud, so for me to suggest that I have the answer to that eternal question would be, at the very least, a bold supposition. I have, however, been at this close to thirty years, and as the chairman of one of the PGA’s Player Development Committee’s, I am particularly invested in the answers to that age-old conundrum, at least from a golfing standpoint. And that is why myself, and others working to grow this great game, find ourselves on a proverbial “Grail Quest” to find these answers, and maybe even some new questions.
The game of golf in the U.S. has been attracting new participants of both genders at roughly the same rate for close to 40 years. Unfortunately, however, the glaring differences in numbers when it comes to retention would make it truly appear that once introduced, women very often find the existing golf landscape much closer to Mars than that of Venus. And so as the game’s participation numbers began to dip in the past decade, its stewards began investing more than ever to find out what could be done differently. And as a group, women specifically were targeted, and questions that go more than skin-deep began being asked to find out what is truly behind golf’s historical inability to retain women players at the same rates as men.
Studies done by The PGA of America have isolated where we can start pointing fingers, and as it turns out, there are a myriad of issues which collectively conspire to keep women from progressing from the enthusiastic beginner to the core golfer that supports the game long-term. Shorter courses, more relaxed dress codes, available day-care, a focus on fitness, less time commitment, and less expensive equipment are all among the reasons most often cited by women who either don’t play or who don’t play more. And when you combine those issues with the fact that the U.S. doesn’t have a nationally funded overriding organization charged with the growth of the sport as you do in many other countries, it’s no small wonder that many other countries see women participating at a much higher rates. And while these are all critical pieces to the puzzle, they are absent one rather central piece to solving it. But Before I disclose that missing link, I need to relate the quick story of how I almost accidentally discovered the ultimate answer to this all-important question.
A few years ago I had a vacancy amongst my staff of professionals and began to search for a candidate. During that time, numerous ladies at my facility suggested I hire a woman. I said that I would love to, and in truth had already contacted the LPGA and our local women’s division of the PGA, but as the resumes began pouring in they all had one thing in common. They were all from men, a fact that didn’t surprise me considering how few women club professionals there are. A month went by, and I was already in the interview process, when I was finally and unexpectedly contacted by an LPGA Member who was moving back to the area and looking for a club to call home. And while reasons both legal and political obligate me to mention she was not just a woman, but also the most qualified candidate, I would be remiss if I didn’t add that many of our members were thrilled about the fact that she was. Now we already had a robust women’s program, and an active ladies’ membership, both of which I felt she would augment, but as much as I had expected when I hired her, I wasn’t quite expecting what happened next.
Women who had never taken a lesson started signing up for them, including many whom I had never even seen at the club. Participation in our ladies’ programs, the same programs we had been running for years, jumped overnight, and the perception of my skill as a buyer seemed magically transformed. I was even approached at off-premise social functions by members from other clubs asking about instruction once it became known that I had hired a woman professional. Now most of us in the industry have at least a tacit understanding of what is known as the “intimidation factor”, but even as a three-term member of the PGA’s Board of Directors, I had obviously underestimated how powerful it really is. The comedienne Phyllis Diller used to say, “You know why the pro tells you to keep your head down don’t you? It’s so you can’t see him laughing.” A funny line from a funny lady, but when this process brought to light the fact that some ladies had been travelling almost 30 miles for lessons at another facility who already employed a woman professional it really started to hit home how much the him in that joke is the biggest part of our problem. So I stopped laughing, because it really got me to thinking…
As an industry we are asking why women account for only 20% of the game’s players in the U.S., but if we really want to change that shouldn’t we rather be questioning why they comprise less than 5% of our nation’s golf professionals? Membership in the LPGA’s Teaching and Club Professional Division stands at roughly 1500. The PGA of America counts roughly 27,000 members nationally, and while some of those are women, it is still a very small percentage. Thanks to Title IX enforcement in the U.S. there are now almost as many women as men playing golf at the high school and collegiate levels, the most common early training ground for men club professionals, yet for some reason those women largely aren’t looking to the industry as a potential career path. And while I know that my having a woman on staff is somewhat unique in the industry, I know the benefits of it wouldn’t be unique to my facility.
In the end, finding that “Holy Grail” entails more than just answering the questions of what women say they want. It means listening with the goal of answering questions they didn’t even think to ask. And if we want to make a serious impact on women’s participation, The PGA of America and LPGA needs to start aggressively recruiting more women into the business, with the long-term goal of having at least the same percentage of women who play the game in our professional ranks. More women in the business is not just good business, it is the answer to our “Grail Quest” because it will bring (and keep) more women in the game, and with those women will come the girls (and boys) of our next generation. So it’s time to stop looking to Tiger, or even for the next Tiger, if we’re looking to make the golf healthy again. Because the real next Tiger more than likely calls herself something like Cheyenne… At least that’s my bold supposition.