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Golf: Girls who Golf

Traditionally a male-dominated sport, is golf making strides within female participation? Dr Chris Mackintosh and Christopher Mills take a closer look at how England Golf is working to engage with women

Published in Sports Management 2019 issue 1
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Girls Golf Rocks is a national project that aims to attract younger girls into the sport / photos: © Leaderboard Photography
Girls Golf Rocks is a national project that aims to attract younger girls into the sport/ photos: © Leaderboard Photography

Academic research conducted in north America and the UK over the past 15 years has tended to characterise golf as a male-dominated sport in which women experience chauvinism and constraints on participation. Within our own research we occasionally see evidence of this, however, while instances of poor female experience may still exist, it’s important not to tar an entire sport with the same brush. In England, there are just under 2,000 golf clubs and our own research has shown that there is considerable variety in culture and practice. Most golf clubs are now working hard to attract more women into the sport.

The 2010 Equality Act provided the golf industry with a significant stimulus to accelerate the pace of change. Whereas some golf clubs previously offered different membership types for women and placed restrictions on their playing times, they found themselves having to comply with the Equality Act. It helped many golf clubs take positive steps towards creating a better experience for women golfers.

An inclusive culture
The golf industry has recognised the enormous growth potential of women’s golf and is making a concerted effort to improve the experience of women golfers. The R&A, which governs the sport worldwide outside of the United States, launched its Women in Golf Charter in May 2018. The charter creates a commitment to developing a more inclusive culture within golf.

The Professional Golfers Association (PGA) is also promoting initiatives to help more women learn to play. The We Love Golf scheme is one particular initiative that has refashioned the way that golf is coached to new women golfers and is proving successful at making golf more appealing. Another example is Golf Access, a scheme set up to attract children by making the format fun and welcoming to everyone. Its very nature makes it appealing to both girls and boys. It encourages them to compete on an equal footing, playing from the same tees. The emphasis is on getting out onto the golf course and having fun.

Golf Access launched in March 2017 and has been implemented in around 85 clubs. A survey of these clubs found that it had attracted around 1,000 junior participants in its first six months. Approximately 40 per cent of these were female. England Golf is undertaking more formal research piloting of this project to establish best practice.

Ambitious targets
England Golf, the sport’s governing body in England, is particularly proactive in promoting women’s golf. In 2015, it set a target of 20 per cent participation by women by 2020. If achieved, that would represent a significant growth in the female market. Lauren Spray, women and girls manager at England Golf, has the task of supporting initiatives to help achieve this target.

Spray explains: “Golf is taking steps to make sure we’re more inviting and more accessible. While there may have been some women happy with the old status quo, perhaps just playing on their allocated weekday afternoon, the women coming into the game want to play on a Saturday. That’s the peak time when you want to go out and play your sport. We’ve got to adjust to that.”

Female participation is a major strand running through England Golf’s strategic plan and its Get into Golf initiative, which aims to inspire more people to try golf. The programme offers low-cost or free beginner activities at golf clubs across England. The campaign branding is young and vibrant with the aim of attracting 25 to 40 year olds.

“We’ve seen a really high number of women engage with Get into Golf because they like the structured group format to the coaching. It suits women a lot,” says Spray.

Challenging perceptions
England Golf also runs a Girls Golf Rocks project. This is a national project run in partnership with the Golf Foundation and aims to introduce younger girls into golf.

“When we started Girls Golf Rocks four years ago, there were no girls-only sessions to learn golf,” says Spray. The project saw over 1,400 girls complete the 5 week coaching programme in 2018.

In July 2018, England Golf inspired and led Women and Girls’ Golf Week, an industry-wide social media campaign to raise awareness of women in golf and to challenge perceptions of the sport among women. The campaign, which was also supported by Scottish Golf, Wales Golf, the Irish Ladies Golf Union and The R&A, encouraged female golfers to share their golfing stories on social media using the hashtag #WhyIGolf. The response far exceeded expectations. The campaign reached more than 2.5m people on Twitter and generated over 12 million impressions. Spray said: “The response during that week from women, girls – and men was fantastic.”

The campaign fortuitously coincided with England’s Georgia Hall winning the Ricoh Women’s British Open at Royal Lytham. The 22 year-old was the first British winner of the Women’s Open since 2001. As Spray explained: “Georgia winning at the end of the week was the icing on the cake. We couldn’t have wished for a better ending. We’re now working on ways to channel this energy and enthusiasm to grow the game.”

Female volunteers
As academics at Manchester Metropolitan University, our own research is currently focused on the role of volunteers within golf clubs. Volunteers fill a variety of roles including governance roles, team captaincy, competition organising, junior coordination and supporting new members. They have an important role to play in setting the right tone within a golf club and supporting new members to get involved and feel welcome. Interestingly, we found that women golfers tend to volunteer at twice the rate of male golfers, yet women remain under-represented in the most influential governance roles. Our research is helping England Golf to determine strategies to increase diversity at a decision making level.

Moving in the right direction
There is a lot of effort going into the promotion of women and girls golf, but will it pay off? It’s early days, especially since success will depend on delivering the cultural change that makes women feel genuinely welcome at golf clubs. There are, however, some signs of progress. England Golf already has some tentative findings to suggest that the female participation rate has increased to 17 per cent. There’s a lot more to be done, but things seem to be moving in the right direction.

It appears that England Golf and its partners in the wider golfing world are responding to the challenges set out in the DCMS 2015 Strategy and to Sport England’s vision for a more active nation. The ‘gender agenda’ is now central to achieving wider organisational goals for golf. We hope our research is able to deliver evidence-led decision making at club, county and national policy level to position female volunteers as critical stakeholders in shaping a better future for the game of golf.

About the authors
Dr Chris Mackintosh and Chris Mills

For further information on this golf research, please contact Dr Chris Mackintosh at Chris is a senior lecturer in sport management at Manchester Metropolitan University. Chris Mills is a PhD researcher studying golf club volunteers with a three year studentship funded by England Golf.

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