It is sometimes joked that the word GOLF is an acronym for Gentlemen Only Ladies Forbidden. This was a pretty shocking fact to uncover when I started my quest this month to understand the game of golf and why it’s so male-dominated.
With signs on clubs once stating ‘No Dogs, No Women’ the stigma attached to the game seems so deeply instilled, leaving me wondering, will it ever be possible to make it a level playing field?
Before I started digging deeper my knowledge of golf was very limited. I’m ashamed to admit I’ve always presumed golf is a sport played mostly by older, wealthy men. Golf has just never appealed to me, until now.
Now, I did spend several years looking after the Sky Sports accounts within golf clubs along the South Coast for several years but after leaving that role in 2016 the only time I’ve set foot back in a golf club since has been for wedding receptions. Let’s be honest they lend themselves perfectly to these types of events due to their usually beautiful, green backdrops.
Since the start of lockdown (and referring back to my column last month) my gym remains closed and I was delighted to recently be offered the opportunity to use some beautiful outdoor space at Paultons Golf Centre. This was so we could safely deliver outdoor 1:1 personal training sessions and, in the last couple of weeks, additional socially-distanced small group training.
I was back into a golf setting again, only this time for completely different reasons and looking at it all in a completely new light. My partnership with the club is something that we hope will continue and develop in the future. Golf has, therefore, become something that I also need to understand.
Being at a golf club again made me think of an old friend of mine whom I met when our daughters were at nursery together. I knew she was a pro-golfer and I knew that her career began at this very same club as a Saturday girl. How did she get into it if it’s so male-dominated? How did she break down the barriers of being in such a small minority of female players? Is it possible to re-invent golf to entice more females to play? And what does the future look like?
Before I decided to put a lot of questions to her I was intrigued to know how it became so male-dominated in the first place – especially as it was started by a woman! Golf, as we know it today, can be almost wholly attributed to one very unusual figurehead: Mary, Queen of Scots. In the 1550s she commissioned a golf course to be built at St. Andrews in Scotland after playing and enjoying a similar game in France, and thanks to her influence it soon became a widely-enjoyed game across Scotland, then the rest of the UK and beyond.
Notable moments include the invention of the word ‘caddy’ and the first golf-related public scandal when she was spotted playing just days after her husband’s death. Notable Scottish historian George Buchanan wrote at the time that Mary, Queen of Scots was playing ‘sports that were clearly unsuitable to women.’ (Kempinski.com) Sadly, her legacy didn’t last very long, and women golfers weren’t heard of again for several centuries.
Golfing became an elite sport, often associated with business discussions which, of course, women were considered to have no place in at the time. The next major milestone for women was in 1867 when, noting the lack of venues for women to play golf, the very same St. Andrews formed The Ladies Club, the first women’s golf organisation. This triggered a steady rise in women’s golf associations, and competitive championships for women soon followed.
This new recognition gave women a chance to start making changes to the game again, and in 1893 top golfer Issette Miller invented the first golf handicap system, levelling the playing field and opening up the sport to less experienced players. Fast forward to the present day and although there seems to have been a clear shift towards women making a stand in a once male-dominated sport, female golf club members currently only account for 15% of total club members, lagging far behind many European countries.
‘A number of clubs in the UK have tried to change and attract more women’ says Alistair Dunsmuir, Editor of the magazine The Golf Business. They have introduced women-only golf courses, and coaching sessions, and have looked to attract more female coaching staff. They have also tried to create a more sociable environment, where women can stay behind for a glass of wine afterward.
Other clubs have introduced creches so that mothers can have a relaxing round of golf or meet with friends in the clubhouse. He adds: ‘Golf is also looking to increase its appeal to children and teenagers – the sport has realised if it wants to have growth it can’t rely just on older white men.’
Meanwhile, participation programmes such as Girls Golf Rocks and Love.Golf, are looking to encourage women to give the sport a try.
Katie Dawkins is widely regarded as one of the best golf coaches in the South. With over 20 years of coaching experience, her knowledge of every area of the game is formidable. I asked her how it all started for her: “I started to play golf when I was 11, my brother took it up at school I thought it would be a challenge to get better than him. I then spent the next few years learning with my mum and trying to beat him!! We played as a family of four which was an awesome way to spend time together.”
What about being female in such a male-dominated sport?
“Golf was and still is saturated with male dominance like so many sports. Throughout the 20th Century, the game as most other sports was deemed for women merely to play and not a competitive sport. The lady golfer was always viewed as a lesser species. Women were not allowed to set foot in the clubhouse of a golf club and this continued in areas of clubs even when I was a junior in the 1990s.”
Do you ever think the stigma attached to golf will change?
“I think there will always be individuals or groups that deem golf to be an old boys club that shouldn’t be stained with anything remotely feminine. That’s why I think there is a need to form a whole new version of golf, a ‘bite-sized’; game. Something women can squeeze into their busy lives. The 6 hole format that has already begun to emerge is something I think women can own and run with.
I don’t think traditional golfers will view it as a ‘serious threat’ and that’s fine. It’s a way to give women the golf bug. The natural transition to a fuller version of the game will unfold and there’ll be no stopping women making their mark on club golf. Who cares what anyone thinks. Let’s not waste energy on it. Bring on the Girl Power!!!”
So, if like me, having learned a little more about the game has made you want to give it a try then Katie has an offer for SOCIALight readers, making it accessible to even the busiest of ladies!
“If you’re a woman in business then golf is definitely the game for you. The networking possibilities are vast and usually, ladies in business miss out on corporate days (and therefore networking opportunities) as they don’t play golf. I aim to change all that and with my bite-sized version of the game. I have plans for breakfast networking sessions to ensure the women of the South really will be winning in business as well as on the golf course! These sessions will have you hooked in no time. Fresh air, exercise, meeting fun people, and learning a sport that will last you a lifetime. Come and join us on a Thursday 10-11:30. £20 each including a drink.” Contact Katie to book: katiedawkinsgolf.co.uk
The future of golf certainly looks like it’s shifting and with places like Paultons actively encouraging females and golfers at their club and a free academy golf membership for kids it’s quite clear many are looking to create an all-inclusive family leisure destination.