As the numbers show growth in women’s participation in golf, courses and clubs are adding heavier doses of instructional programming to complement the traditional low-key, more casual outreach efforts.
Female players are among the demographic segments most frequently cited as a target of opportunity for increasing overall participation in golf. And in fact, the golf industry has done a decent job of introducing more women to the sport in recent years.
The challenge—as with all player segments—now comes from how to bind new converts to golf while simultaneously retaining those women who are already invested in the game. And as forward-thinking clubs and courses in the U.S. take on this challenge, more are beginning to realize that the appeal of the game itself may be a better path to helping women become “golfers for life” than socially oriented “9 and Wine” events.
|Summing It Up
• The proportion of golfers over the age of six who are women has ticked up steadily in recent years after being stagnant at roughly 20%.
• More golf clubs and courses are coming to realize that when presented correctly, the appeal of the game of golf can be
just as strong a lure for female players as socially oriented events.
• Public courses have come to see attracting female players as an important new revenue stream, while private clubs now recognize the need to have women see golf’s value, for themselves as well as their families, as an important factor behind the decision to join.
• Golf instructional programs for women should include several levels ranging from beginner to accomplished, and offer on-course sessions in addition to classroom and academy time.
The opportunity to grow female participation in the game is real. The National Golf Foundation’s 2016 summary of golf participation in the U.S. shows that women now constitute nearly 24% of golfers age 6 and above. While that still represents less than half the percentage of all females in the country, it continues the small but meaningful increases shown in each of the past three years, after decades where women’s participation level in golf was stuck at roughly 20%.
The growth has come through a combination of factors. Public golf course operators have developed a heightened awareness that female players are a viable revenue opportunity, both individually and through team and league play. At the same time, the family movement that has been driving today’s membership initiatives has opened private clubs’ eyes to the need to have more women—who are now much more likely to be a key part of the decision to join, and then to continue to sign off on the monthly dues bill—come to appreciate golf’s value as part of a club membership, not only for their spouse and children, but also for themselves.
In all cases, having more women embrace the game calls for a mix of instruction and on-course programming that is welcoming and appealing to women, regardless of their skill level and experience. To achieve this goal, Aurora Kirchner-McClain, Director of Instruction at The Clubs of Kingwood (Texas) Golf Advantage School, offers a graduated series of lessons and practice programs. Each level is designed to meet the specific needs of her female clients, depending on where they fall on the experience and ability scale.
“Of course, we offer the regular Get Golf Ready program,” says Kirchner-McClain. “But we also offer Get Golf Ready 2, for women who have either graduated from the first [program] or have taken a hiatus, and Get Golf Ready 3, which is strictly on-course instruction and course management for those who don’t want to take individual lessons. And we also have what we call ‘Pure Practice’—a weekly class for those who are somewhat more advanced than beginners, to teach them drills and how to practice on their own.”
At The Clubs of Kingwood, PGA professional Tim Lovell spearheads a variety of events designed to entice women to play with fellow club members and family members. One, called “Route 66,” takes place on Tuesday evenings at 6 p.m. during the March-October season. It features a six-hole scramble event, accompanied by hors d’oeuvres, a nacho bar and possibly a margarita or two, and typically attracts up to 50 male and female members.
The club also blocks times on its Lake Course once a month in the summer for only the cart fee, drawing up to 30 families. Additionally, the club’s Women’s Golf Association plays on Tuesday mornings, or on any of the five or six times reserved for them on Saturdays.
While the Executive Women’s Golf Association (EWGA) is marking its 25th anniversary this year, it too has seen a spurt of interest in line with recent growth in overall female participation in golf. And for obvious reasons, the EWGA has a strong interest in not only continuing to cultivate new members, but also in keeping existing female players engaged.
Cheryl Davis is the President of the group’s Dayton, Ohio chapter, which has consistently ranked among the organization’s leaders in member retention (and was ranked number-one last year). As individual clubs and courses have found, Davis also believes that the key to keeping women involved in the game is to offer instruction and on-course play opportunities that are suitable and appealing to players of all experience and skill levels. “It’s one thing to get people to join,” she says. “It’s another to be able to get them to stay.
“We have programs for pretty much every level,” Davis reports. “There’s a good mix of social or mixed formats, along with more competitive stroke-play events. So now we have events for the more serious golfers, [as well as] some that are more for people who just want casual golf.”
In addition to competitive events, whether serious or casual, Dayton’s 125-woman chapter helps beginners get over the hurdles of golf introduction by having some of the chapter’s more experienced players mentor the newcomers. “We have a mentoring program for women who may have only played scrambles or with their husbands,” Davis says. “There’s a special mentoring league where we help women with how to go out on the course and play, how to navigate the golf course and pace of play, things like that.
“We’re very encouraging to new golfers,” she adds. “Most of our single-digit [handicap] members don’t mind playing with 30- or 40-handicappers, which is not always the case with other chapters. We find that’s how you keep them coming back, [because] they’re not intimidated.”
Beyond Happy Hour
At Troon North Golf Club in Scottsdale, the flagship property of Troon Golf, women have become what Doug Hammer, the club’s PGA Director of Instruction, says is the club’s most avid and fastest-growing demographic. So fast, in fact, that added demand from female members, locals and winter “snowbird” visitors has spawned a wider variety of instructional clinics and on-course events.
“We started with something that was basically social and called ‘Mulligans and Martinis,’“ Hammer says. “Then we added a 12-week session of lessons, working from the green backward. The one-hour lessons were followed by a Happy Hour that provided revenue for the club.
“Then a number of the ladies were asking, what more can we do?” Hammer reports. “So we added a second clinic that was more in-depth and designed to create an avid golfer, with two hours on the range spent working on specific skills and shots. Then we started an on-course clinic, with 30 minutes on the range followed by 90 on the course, to play five or six holes and work on course management.”
As they get into the game, women are no different from men when it comes to wanting more distance out of their swings. As a result, Hammer and the other instructors at Troon North have created the Power Challenge, a series of six training sessions held every other week.
“We guarantee they will gain at least three miles per hour in swing speed from start to finish,” Hammer says. “We use Trackman and give them homework on things to work on to increase ball speed, using an online account and video. Our first group had 16 people, at $200 each.”
The New Rules of Golf School
Troon North has not been the only semi-private club to realize that attracting more female players now requires instructional programs designed for women’s specific abilities and goals, and that include on-course play in addition to a dash of socializing. Jason Beffert, PGA, General Manager of Lyman Orchards Golf Club in Middlefield, Conn., a 45-hole semi-private facility with approximately 150 members, is also fully on board with the proven value of expanded programming aimed at this demographic segment.
“We set our instruction program up in stages, which we call ‘Golf Fore Women 101 through 401,’” Beffert reports. The first two stages, each consisting of five one-hour lessons, are basically introductory, with Golf Fore Women 201 building on 101’s lessons.
The next session levels take place exclusively on the course; 301 is held on the club’s par-3 course and features club selection, bunker play, green reading and putting, while 401 moves similar instruction to one of the club’s full-length championship courses. For all of the stages, students receive plenty of individual instruction; 301 sessions feature a 5-to-1 student-to-instructor ratio, and 401 drops that to 3-to-1.
“This season, we started a basic ladies league on Tuesdays, and had 110 ladies sign up,” Beffert says. “They get 20% off the greens fees [for] leagues. They pair up or pick partners and in the beginners’ league, we don’t keep score. But in the more advanced leagues, we have a different game every week. Now our 301 leagues also want to keep score, and they’re playing more during non-league days.”
Participation in Lyman Orchards’ women’s league has grown, Beffert reports, from 400 in 2014 to 450 last year and over 500 this year. “The women are begging us to add even more programs,” he says.