Each May, the world of golf celebrates National Golf Month. This year, the chosen theme is ‘Women in Golf’. More specifically – getting women into, or back into, golf.
This may be easier said than done. As the widely-cited KPMG research from 2016 showed, only 15% of golfers in the UK are female – a far cry from the European average of 25%. The question is then, how do we improve that number? Perhaps the past can provide some clues.
The first woman to play golf regularly was, according to historians: Mary, Queen of Scots. After that, women’s golf wasn’t mentioned for another 200 years, before a group including ‘Charming Sally’ were recorded playing at Bruntsfield Links in 1738.
In this period, there are records of the first international golf match, first golf club and first set of written golf rules. Yet, as historian Elinor Nickerson puts it, “the usual accounts of the development of golf make it appear as though no female ever placed a hand on a golf club.”
Instead, the next major women’s golf event is when a group of Scottish fishwives took part in a tournament at Musselburgh in 1811 – though only after “pointing out that the men had one and they did not.”
That statement seems to be a recurring theme to this day, with the latest ongoing dispute being around holding a women’s Masters at Augusta.
2010 US Open champion Paula Creamer lit the fuse in April 2015 when she called on The Masters to stage a women’s tournament. It seemed a natural progression that perhaps the world’s best known golf major should have a female equivalent – like the US Open already does.
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Unsurprisingly, those in charge at Augusta National did not agree, with chairman Billy Payne laying the blame on the private golf club’s congested schedule – “the time that we dedicate to the preparation and conduct of the tournament is already extensive.”
The issue won’t go away though, and public opinion for women’s golf has continued to gather steam. The LGPA Tour already has five well-established majors; the ANA Inspiration, the US Open, the Ricoh British Open, the Women’s PGA Championship and the Evian Championship.
With the addition of four new tournaments to the overall Tour, 2017’s prize money is estimated to be well over £53 million. What’s more, the women’s World Number 1 golfer – Lydia Ko – recently signed a bumper deal to be the face of high-end golf brand PXG. Add it all together, and it seems obvious to most that women’s golf will only increase in popularity, but is being held back by a mixture of tradition and opportunity.
There are, however, many reasons to be cheerful. If the recent furore around Muirfield’s no female member vote (since overturned) proved anything, it is that attitudes towards women in golf have indeed moved on significantly. Public outrage was rapid and vocal, prompting genuine change. Despite denying a female Masters, even Augusta National itself has opened its doors to female members, if only since 2012.
Equality is also something that pro golfers no longer shy away from addressing, as Rory McIlroy’s enraged comments over the Muirfield vote proved: “In this day and age, where you’ve got women that are like the leaders of certain industries and women that are heads of state and not to be able to join a golf course? […] It’s obscene.” Quite.
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Perhaps the biggest indication of all for the changing world order is National Golf Month itself. Far from being discounted and overshadowed, the recent fall in golfing memberships and popularity has brought new perspective to the urgent need of getting more people into golf. With over a million and a half less golfers in Britain since 2006, the powers that be are starting to realise that enthusiasm should be encouraged, whatever shape it takes – and that shape is increasingly feminine.
According to England Golf’s participation director Richard Flint, around half the English counties have reported an increase in girls playing golf. What’s more, the more progressive and helpful the golf club is – flexible memberships, less strict dress code etc. – the bigger the growth in new members! The message from National Golf Month and beyond is simple. The more that #girlsgetgolfing, the more our beloved sport of golf is improved for everyone. It’s not tokenism, it’s sharing.
Let’s not just have a women’s Masters because, as the Scottish fishwives found, ‘the men have one’ and they don’t. Let’s not just promote and televise more women’s golf events because it’s the next logical glass ceiling to break – but because the standard of golf is extremely high and there’s a big audience waiting to watch it. And finally – please, let’s stop quantifying women in golf according to looks rather than talent, as certain tawdry ‘Top 100 lists’ do. We’re all golfers. Let’s all #getgolfing.