When Dixie Reid was introduced to the game of golf about 20 years ago in Houston, there was no second date.
It wasn’t that Reid wasn’t athletic, or that she was too busy. She simply couldn’t abide the male vibe of the experience. “The guys behind us were riding us all day, really unforgiving guys. It wasn’t fun. At the time I was playing softball, tennis, soccer. Why deal with that?”
The fact that Dixie Reed is now a passionate golfer who plays three times a week – and makes golf purchases almost as often – is the kind of story golf loves to tell, but too often cannot. Each year the National Golf Foundation reports on the “latent demand” of females interested in the game and the number is huge, ranging from 15 to 18 million. Activity at ranges and other “off-course” venues, such as Topgolf, suggest that the interest is real. Forty-two percent of off-course-only players are female. And yet, year after year, women account for only a quarter of on-course golfers. Changing that fact has become the golf industry’s version of curing the slice. So when a facility succeeds, as Morton Golf in Sacramento, California, has over the past decade with its women’s mentor program, it’s a story.
It’s Dixie Reid’s story.
Reid, who grew up in Texas, came to work and settle down in Sacramento. Two years ago during the pandemic, she got another taste of golf when an old friend in Lubbock took her to the local country club there. This time was different.
“I sank this super long putt, and I thought, it’s a miracle! Maybe I can do this,” Reid said.
At Morton Golf, they call it “the toughest 100 yards in golf” – the walk from the range to the first tee. They decided that no woman should make the walk alone.
Back in Sacramento, she was invited to play by a new women’s group. To get ready, she signed up for lessons at Haggin Oaks Golf Course, run by the Morton family, with Dick McShane, a PGA pro.
“It was harder than I thought,” Reid said. “I went from group lessons to private lessons, and I was really enjoying them, but I still hadn’t played. Dick finally said, ‘Dixie, you need to go out and play, that’s where the fun is, not hitting balls off a mat.’”
For the former Sacramento Bee reporter whose personality suggests the Unsinkable Molly Brown, Dixie’s hesitation surprises. “I was scared, intimidated, really, I didn’t know how to play with real golfers,” she said. “I didn’t know whether I was good enough. I didn’t know any of it.”
At Morton Golf, they call it “the toughest 100 yards in golf” – the walk from the range to the first tee. Morton Golf vice president Mike Woods and Linda Reid, who joined Morton in 2017 as its first Women’s Golf Ambassador, argue that any program attempting to bring women into golf has to master that 100 yards. They decided that no woman should make the walk alone. Hence, the Morton Women’s Golf Mentors.
“Women are just more susceptible to being intimidated than men,” said Linda Reid, who is not related to Dixie. “Men can play bad golf and not feel bad about holding people up. Women get embarrassed.”
The program was conceived, ironically, just after Haggin Oaks had been named the most female-friendly golf facility in the state by the Pacific Women’s Golf Association.
“I knew that within the industry and elsewhere, in the shopping arena, for example, places like Lululemon, compared to them, we were a ways away from where we should be,” Woods said.
What followed was a painstaking couple of years in which women who played at the Haggin Oaks two courses, and some women who declined to, told Woods and the Mortons (Ken Sr., Ken Jr. and Tom, who runs the teaching program) how they really felt.
“The first two meetings of our task force were pretty stiff,” Woods said. “The third meeting, the gloves came off. The women started to tell us about our blind spots. It was tough. You have to have thick skin, and patience.”
Ken Morton describes the process with a quote he attributes to Gloria Steinem: “The truth shall set you free. But first it will piss you off.”
Things like toilets, for example, turned out to be a big deal.
“I had no idea,” Woods said. “They were old, probably 30 years old, typical park toilets, with metal seats. The women said the worst thing was, they were way too low, too close to the ground, so that some of the women needed help to get up. Can you imagine how embarrassing that is?”
The revelations worked both ways.
“They said you have a rude club repair team. Well, we had had, about eight years earlier, but we had replaced them, and now we had a really friendly, helpful group,” Woods said. “But these women had had a bad experience and had never gone back. One assignment we gave the group was to go and get a club regripped. Everyone came back happy.”
In its analysis, Morton Golf determined that three of five complaints of the women were already handled, simply not communicated well. Twenty percent of the complaints, like the toilets, weren’t raised by the women because they thought nothing would be done. It was the final 20 percent, the deep-rooted attitudes of male golfers, shop staff and even teachers who would rather not deal with women, that took longer. Woods introduced a training program that included role-playing for starters, rangers and other staff.
It was working, but not fast enough for Linda Reid, a former First Tee of Greater Sacramento board member, an avid player and a member of the group.
“About 10 months in, Linda asked to meet with me privately, and we sat down. She said basically, ‘You’re not getting it done. You need to hire me,’” Woods said. “It was Linda’s idea to create the mentor program.”
The support of Ken Morton Sr., a Master Professional who has led the industry in merchandising, junior golf development, cause marketing and just about every other category during a 60-year career, was critical, too, Woods said.
Even after Reid’s arrival, resistance continued, sometimes from surprising sources. She and Woods thought the 10 or so established women’s clubs at Morton courses would be the source of support and player placement.
“We knew the women’s clubs were watching their membership numbers slip,” Woods said, “so we thought they’d be on board, but when we asked them, they didn’t want anything to do with this. They didn’t really know about welcoming new beginning golfers; they didn’t have the structure to bring these new women in. They only wanted women who were established golfers, who had handicaps, who knew the ropes.”
In addition, there were equipment salespeople who avoided women, especially beginners. And pros who would rather teach juniors or experienced golfers. “That’s the kind of thing that drove Ken Sr. crazy,” Reid said.
Her mentor group – 20 female volunteers, some very accomplished players, one or two from those women’s clubs – made the difference. They played with the beginners in two (now three) nine-hole mentor “leagues” where mentors and coaches such as apprentice Ken Hurdle, a retired California Department of Corrections ombudsman, accompany the women and teach pace of play, etiquette, rules and some swing basics.
“Every single time it’s fun,” said Dale Yasukochi, a Morgan Stanley retiree, who plays “double-bogey golf” now, but “used to be much worse.” Yasukochi was introduced to golf as a kid but found it boring. When she took it up as an adult, her brother, an avid player, told her she wasn’t good enough to play with him.
“Look at the compound growth rate that’s possible if you convert beginners. It’s the difference between a managed outcome and an unmanaged one, where you just follow the market.” – Joe Beditz
To the cynics, often men, who say, maybe if you need hand holding, it’s not the sport for you, Esther Garcia, a golfer who gave up the game she played with her husband and associated with him when he died of cancer in his 50s, replies: “Sometimes you just need a push. Not someone to hold our hand, just a push to encourage you.” She’s heading to Palm Springs next month to play in a tournament with her mentor, Vicki Philpott.
It’s a feel-good story that would be only that and nothing more if it weren’t for the business implications. Beginning in 2017, the year after Reid was hired, the mentor program had 125 women who contributed 1,125 rounds. In 2022, there were 300 on Linda’s list, and they played 4,404 rounds. From 2017 through 2022, the mentor leagues generated 17,506 rounds. At an average of $18 per round, the program contributed $315,108 to the bottom line.
But for beginners like Dixie Reid and Yasukochi, there was a great deal more “contribution” than green fees. There were lessons, equipment and apparel.
“Three months in, I went in for a professional fitting at Haggin Oaks,” Reid said. “I’ve since added other clubs, including the Scotty Cameron putter. I counted up my Jamie Sadock shirts: 40! Plus many JS jackets. That’s not excessive, right? I mean, I’m playing five days a week sometimes. I have three push carts – I’m giving one to a friend – and four golf bags. I will donate one to the First Tee program.”
It boggles the mind to think what Reid, who now has a dog named Rory McIlroy, might have spent on golf had she taken the game up back in Houston 20 years ago, but the point is she’s all-in now.
Golfers like her represent the sweet spot in the effort to increase golf participation, said Joe Beditz, president and CEO of the National Golf Foundation.
“Look at the compound growth rate that’s possible if you convert beginners,” Beditz said. “It’s the difference between a managed outcome and an unmanaged one, where you just follow the market.”
To those who have tried and failed, Beditz says: “Hey, it’s hard work. But can it be done? Well, Ken Morton and his team did it.”
But it’s not simple. One of the mentors moved from Sacramento to Napa and wanted to build the program there. Linda Reid gave her all of the materials.
“She sent me a text after the meeting the head pro,” she said. “She said the first thing out of his mouth was: ‘I can’t have a program like that because I have to protect my professional instructors. I can’t take work away from them!’
“The guys at Haggin Oaks had the same reaction until Tom Morton and I met with each of them individually and explained how this program would help to build their client base.”
Reid suggested the program to a local club herself because they’d just hired a female golf professional. “The female pro said she’d rather work with juniors,” Reid said.
In the wake of the pandemic, when many women discovered or returned to golf, the challenge is retention.
“We’ve seen some real transformation in the way we welcome golfers, even in the way we define golf,” said Jon Last, president of the Sports & Leisure Research Group, which follows the industry. “More owners see the importance of retaining these customers. But most places aren’t willing to do what it takes, sadly.”
Last said that’s in part because “golf is fundamentally and dominantly” played by men. To attract new female players as Morton Golf’s women’s mentor program has, is to view the game differently than many men do.
“A woman in her 50s came to me,” Hurdle said. “I said, ‘What are your goals?’ She said, ‘I just don’t want to suck at golf.’ I said, ‘What would that look like?’ She said, ‘I would hit it off the tee and maybe hit it again or maybe just pick it up and go up to the green and play there. I don’t want to do all the stuff my husband says I ought to. There is a place for everyone here. That’s what I love about it.”
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