What is limiting the growth of women’s golf? Women’s golf participation numbers persistently hover around 23 percent, despite program after program designed to recruit new women golfers. In my estimation, growth can only occur if recruitment programs are combined with customer retention programs that keep patrons coming back. Without balanced attention to customer retention, grow-the-game initiatives are like a leaky pail that golf courses constantly spend money to fill.
Research shows that as many as 60 percent of new golfers are women, however, only a fraction of women beginners are retained. Cost, difficulty of the game, and time limitations have long been identified as factors that limit general growth of the game, however, in my opinion, there are additional issues that selectively affect women that need to be recognised and acted upon. These issues are rooted in social psychology and gender relations, and are manifest by a lack of inclusivity in all aspects of the golf industry. It is my opinion that marginalisation of women in each of the five following areas contributes to attrition of female golfers: 1) golf course design; 2) golf industry research; 3) golf clothing and equipment; 4) presence of female role models; and 5) media coverage.
The marginalisation women encounter in each of these five areas has either been unrecognised, trivialised, or ignored (even by women themselves), contributing collectively to attrition of female golfers and a lack of growth of the game for women. It’s time to properly recognise and emphasise the impact of the marginalisation, and the very real participation barrier it creates.
Solutions to reducing marginalisation and subsequent attrition amongst women golfers may include: 1) retrofitting golf courses to fit the female golfer’s game; 2) researching women’s hitting metrics and preferences to provide a credible basis for golf course architects and equipment manufacturers to develop products; 3) improving the choice, quality and availability of golf equipment, clothing, and footwear for women golfers; 4) increasing the presence of women role models at all levels of the sport, industry, and governance; and 5) increasing media coverage of women’s golf. Part 1 of this article will address Solution One. Part 2 of this article will address Solutions Two through Four above, and Part 3 will address Solution Five – Positive Media Exposure.
Course design that does not set up properly for the women’s game makes the sport more difficult for women to play rather than to facilitate play. The significance of this issue should be easy to comprehend since difficulty of the game is one of the most salient problems identified as limiting growth of the game. Historically, golf courses were designed by men to fit the male golfer’s game. Forward tees were added to courses after a landmark design initiative by Alice Dye calling for a “Two Tee System for Women.” Her pioneering work improved playability of the golf course for women by shortening the tee to landing area distance, however, it is now time to take that initiative beyond the teeing grounds.
Modern golf course architects can respond to this call for a modernised approach by designing the full length of the golf hole to fit the hitting lengths, angles, and trajectories of the shorter hitter (also see Kari's article Five Features to Make the Golf Course More Playable for Women) A more modernised approach must take into consideration the shorter hitter’s centerline beyond the tee shot, secondary landing areas which are often the most problematic for the shorter hitter, turning points, strategy of the green complex, receptiveness of the green for a lower trajectory approach shot, bail out landing areas, and hazard playability and recovery options.
Designing the course to fit the design gender is such a simple concept that women golfers might be in disbelief to hear that most golf courses have not been designed to fit their game. Many women may think that they don’t play well because they don’t have proficient skills, however, the truth is that many women may have difficulty playing because the course and golf clubs simply are not designed to fit their swing speed. Surely if the goal is to reduce the difficulty of the sport, it would be wise to start designing the course to fit the hitting metrics of women golfers.
Although a popular recruitment approach, it is not the wine, group lessons, or flowers in the restrooms that keep avid golfers returning to the golf course year after year. The repeat customer, male or female, returns for the love of the golf experience: a combination of exercise, immersion in nature, post-round socialisation, and sometimes competition. Women go to play golf – on the golf course, just like men. And if the golf course is a poor fit, they are less likely to come back even though social bonds may be strong. Non-existent landing areas for shorter hitters that shunt golf balls into the long rough, or worse, into hazards make the game a long slog that sends exhausted potential repeat customers walking away (and they take their kids with them.)
Solutions to design problems for women start with the architect and should include involvement of women on design advisory committees. Women need to have a voice, a vote, and be actively involved. In my opinion, it is the architect’s responsibility to ensure this happens even though the conversation with the owner may be difficult.
Copyright© 2017 by Kari Haug