Observed reality might often be dismissed as anecdotal, but when it comes to golf participation, everybody who has tried to make a tee time or buy a new driver has seen the game explode since COVID-19. Ball manufacturers are maxing out their capacities and still not meeting demand, while some resorts such as Bandon Dunes and Sand Valley are booked solid through the end of this year and well into next.
If you are a keen observer, you’ve also noticed an increased number of women. Stand on the first tee at any course and you will see far more women than you did just a few years ago.
Until recently, evidence of more women in golf was anecdotal. Now we have data. According to the National Golf Foundation, the fastest-growing segment in golf comes from women and girls. Of all new participants taking an interest in the “green grass” game, more than 35 percent are women. That is double the number who wanted to play a round of golf before 2020. As of the end of 2022, women and girls make up 25 percent of all golfers, again a massive increase from pre-pandemic numbers.
If you think about it for a couple of minutes, the numbers make sense. The pandemic forced everyone to rethink recreation. With kids home from school and everyone working remotely, one of the only family activities available was a golf course. Dad no longer went out for a Saturday morning round with three buddies. Now, dad, mom and two kids went out for six holes three afternoons a week.
The other contributing factor has been the explosive popularity of off-course facilities such as Topgolf and Toptracer Range. No longer is golf a two- to four-hour experience with a large up-front investment and little immediate payoff. Date night can be dinner, drinks, golf, and music at Topgolf, or evening cocktails with friends on a Toptracer Range. Women find this introduction to the game far less intimidating and a lot more fun.
Another variable is the exponential growth of the LPGA*USGA Girls Golf program, a girl-friendly introduction to the game that now has more than 500 sites engaging an average of 90,000 girls ages 6 to 17 every year. Not only do those girls count themselves as golfers, many introduce their mothers to the game.
All of those factors, some proactive and some accidental, have led to the women’s golf boom.
Now the big question is: How do we keep them?
With the pandemic over and people filing back into offices, what do industry leaders, teachers, coaches and golf course operators need to do to ride this momentum and keep women interested and engaged?
“I love the fact that we have a game that so many people enjoy, but you have to think about this in terms of choices,” former PGA of America president Suzy Whaley said. “As people go back to work and more choices for leisure activities open up, whether it is kids getting back into soccer or pickleball or going back to the gym, whatever it is, that all impacts what a woman does with her time. So, as PGA and LPGA professionals, our job is to make sure the time they spend with us and with golf is of maximum enjoyment, that we are fulfilling the ‘why’ of their leisure time.”
“We have to do what it takes to keep women engaged.” – Suzy Whaley
That was easy during COVID when expectations were low and anything out of the house was a blessing. Now, with golf churning at a fast pace, it’s harder to keep women engaged.
“What happens is you get very complacent when your facilities are full and you are very busy,” Whaley said. “Attention to detail like picking up the phone to call or sending that hand-written note, those things might fall by the wayside. But those things keep women coming back.
“To retain those who came to the game, we have to be encouraging, inviting, fun, fresh, progressive, diligent, detail oriented and offer quality service. Without that, these women will find something else to fill the calendar. Not that they don’t love golf, but they will find something more enjoyable or something else will become a bigger priority.”
Engaging young girls and keeping women coming out through programming is paramount.
Cathy Harbin, a PGA and LPGA professional who owns Pine Ridge Golf Club outside Dallas, Texas installed Toptracer stations on her driving range. Just like that, the range became a food-and-beverage venue for women and men instead of a place for men to beat balls. “It was a game-changer for us,” Harbin said.
“Yes, we have to do what it takes to keep women engaged,” Whaley said. “If they’re swinging a club, they’re a golfer. If it’s Topgolf, you’re a golfer. If it’s PopStroke, you’re a golfer. That needs to be the mindset. And if we keep that focus and pay attention to the detail, we will not only retain the new golfers we attracted during COVID but bring in more women in the coming years.”
So, how many more women does Whaley think the game can attract?
“Well, the last study showed that in the general population, women outnumber men 51 percent to 49 percent,” she said. “We’re at 25 percent of the golf population now. I’d say we have 26 percentage points to go.”
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