Sneak Peek: This article will appear in the May 6 edition of Global Golf Post.
BLUFFTON, SOUTH CAROLINA | With the sun beginning to fall over the South Carolina Lowcountry, Joanna Coe walked across the bridge to Belfair’s 18th tee. The teeing area rises out of the marshland and is attached to a wooden walkway like a ship tied to a dock, the ultimate spot from which to cast your golf ball toward the intimidating fairway ahead.
If Coe was nervous staring at the daunting tee shot during the second round of the PGA Professional Championship, she didn’t show it. With a handful of family members and friends sitting along the bridge, she stuck out her tongue and gave each of them a high-five, never breaking stride on her way down the path.
Witnessing that moment and others like it, you would be convinced the 29-year-old assistant director of instruction at Baltimore (Md.) Country Club was born to connect with people. After all, she does just that every day while teaching others to play golf. That is true now, but wasn’t in the beginning. Earlier in her life, Coe expected a life of solitary independence, grinding away on the tour, competing at the highest level.
“I didn’t really see myself being a club professional. I wanted to be a professional athlete.” – Joanna Coe
The travel; the steadfast determination; the hours working to improve every aspect of your game; the profit margins that for many can be skinnier than a wooden tee: that is what Coe thought she wanted.
“I didn’t really see myself being a club professional,” she said. “I wanted to be a professional athlete. Sports is my life.”
Most PGA professionals will tell you of their past hopes of playing for a living – of being a professional golfer instead of a golf professional – but Coe’s journey was different. So is what she has accomplished, especially among women club professionals.
A talented two-sport athlete in high school, Coe could have played golf for most college programs. However, after playing in an American Junior Golf Association event at Pine Needles where she met the legendary Peggy Kirk Bell, Coe decided to attend Division II powerhouse Rollins College, Bell’s alma mater.
Days before signing with the Tars, Coe tore her anterior cruciate ligament playing in a soccer game and feared that her golf scholarship might not be honored. The response she received from longtime Rollins coach Julie Garner set the tone for the relationship she would have with the school.
“I was kind of freaking out because I am committed, but I didn’t sign yet,” Coe said. “I didn’t know whether she would take the scholarship away. It could have gotten real awkward. I called her and I couldn’t get the words out of my mouth. So I just shoved the phone to my mom who told her, ‘Yeah, she tore her ACL, but she’ll be fine.’ ”
Reminiscing about that story now, Garner laughs at Coe’s panic.
“Of course I knew she would be as good as new in no time,” Garner said. “That’s just typical Jobee. She’s just a great kid and that was kind of the beginning of a great career.”
Great is no exaggeration. Coe won an individual national championship in 2008, captured nine titles and was named an All-American all four years. Her play beyond the Division II realm, which included advancing to the semifinals in the 2009 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links, suggested Coe’s game could translate to the next level. She also excelled in the classroom, majoring in political science. Garner said Coe’s professors still talk about her. Earlier this year, the school inducted Coe into its Sports Hall of Fame, just as Oakcrest High School in her native New Jersey had previously enshrined her onto its Athletic Wall of Fame.
“I loved competitive golf, but I wanted more stability. I love teaching. And I wanted a little less travel. This has been a great route for me and the club has been really supportive of me continuing to play competitively” – Joanna Coe
What transpired after Coe graduated from Rollins wasn’t so much a failure as it was the common plight of young players trying to make it to the big leagues. Coe spent 2012-16 on the Symetra Tour. She won just shy of $34,000. After that, in her mind, it was time for a change. She became a PGA professional and took a job running the junior program at Baltimore Country Club.
“This is just such a great thing after tour life,” Coe said. “I loved competitive golf, but I wanted more stability. I love teaching. And I wanted a little less travel. This has been a great route for me and the club has been really supportive of me continuing to play competitively.”
That’s where the PGA Professional Championship comes in. Coe competed in a field that included 312 of the best PGA professionals in the country and finished tied for 51st. She was one of four women in the field, which is the highest number in history. Three years ago, Karen Paolozzi finished tied for seventh, shattering the previous mark for best finish by a female in the tournament.
The women play from a different set of tees and give up their chance to qualify for the PGA Championship by virtue of a top-20 finish because of it. But Coe hits it nearly as long as the average man in the field. For the record, women competitors do have the option of playing the back tees if they qualified for the tournament playing the back tees. No women have chosen that option because they would rather have a chance of making the cut and earning a paycheck.
Although the current makeup of the championship somewhat reflects the overall PGA membership – only about 5 percent of the 29,000 members in the organization are women – there feels like a shift as more women like Coe come into the association.
For one, competition on the professional tours has never been more fierce. The club professional tournament stage is one on which players can still compete against strong fields, both locally and nationally. Consider that Coe recently won the PGA Women’s Stroke Play Championship and has been the Mid-Atlantic PGA women’s player of the year three years running. She also plans to participate in the first Women’s PGA Cup, a 54-hole championship in which female PGA members from around the world will represent their countries, this October in Texas.
She is good enough to have qualified for KPMG Women’s PGA Championship in both 2018 and ’19 and last year’s ShopRite LPGA Classic via a Monday qualifier.
There are encouraging statistics that suggest more women club professionals could enter the business. According to the National Golf Foundation, more than a third of junior golfers are girls, which is up nearly 20 percent compared to the mid-1990s. Also, of the more than 50,000 kids who played in the PGA Junior League last year, about a quarter were female.
The hope is that over time, more women will be involved in the game and realize there is an opportunity to work in the industry while still competing.
“We would love that to be 50 percent,” said PGA president Suzy Whaley, the association’s first female president. “Those numbers are not where we would like them to be but the future looks bright.”
It’s no secret that the PGA of America membership long has been overwhelmingly white and male. The hope is that over time, more women will be involved in the game and realize there is an opportunity to work in the industry while still competing. Creating opportunities for women is a PGA priority, one that is reinforced by initiatives like the KPMG Women’s Leadership Summit, which is staged in conjunction with the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship and provides women leaders with more tools so they can advance to high-ranking positions within companies.
Whaley observed that 57 of the 312 competitors at this year’s PGA Professional Championship are captains of PGA Junior League teams. That percentage of great club professionals teaching kids is vital. Mentorship is marketing, and so much more.
Just ask Coe. She cites her experiences with her coach, Bruce Chelucci, as one of the main reasons she became a club professional.
“He would always teach me how he was teaching me,” Coe said. “He would often say, ‘Hey, let’s go teach a ladies’ clinic or do a demonstration in front of this kid,’ so I was able to learn while I was young. There was no skipping a beat when I transitioned.”
There are other Joanna Coes out there, girls who are learning from the game’s experts and developing into strong players who can also connect with people. And there’s room for them to be strong teachers, head professionals and general managers.
“I’m hoping her presence will inspire other young women who may not want to play for a living but want to be involved in the game,” Garner said. “There are all kinds of avenues.”
It may take time, but all roads lead to change.
Joanna Coe is competing in the PGA Professional Championship. Photo: Sean Fairholm
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