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Published: Saturday, 7/20/2013 - Updated: 1 year ago

More women taking up golf, enhancing business connections

BY RONEISHA MULLEN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Today marks the final day of competition for the LPGA Marathon Classic that rolled into Sylvania last week and flooded the fairways of Highland Meadows Golf Club with professional women golfers.

The event has drawn thousands of people to the area, including the LPGA tour golfers who are competing for a purse of $1.3 million.

While the pros golf for cash and prizes, other working women are taking up the sport for another reason: business connections. Executive women are trading in their heels for spikes in a concerted effort to go stroke for stroke with their networking male colleagues.

“All of the men vice presidents went to golf outings, so I decided to take up golf,” said Helen Crum, a Bowling Green resident and retired vice president at St. Luke’s Hospital. “Just being at the outings with the physicians gave me the ability to have a relationship with the them to discuss projects, designs, and any issues. It put me on a level playing field with the male VPs who were already using the game for networking with other vice presidents and building relationships.”

Six million women are now teeing it up in the United States, a figure that represents 6 percent of all golfers.

Of the 1,000 career women surveyed recently by the Executive Women’s Golf Association database of women golfers, 73 percent agree that golf has helped them develop new relationships and allowed them to network in their business. Fifty-four percent said golf has helped them be more assertive in the workplace and at home, and 22 percent said they have closed business deals on the golf course.

“Golf is time consuming, but what I discovered was the opportunities I was missing out on because I didn’t play,” said Deborah Barnett, a retired bank executive and former Toledo Board of Education president. Not everyone has the clout to call the bank president’s secretary and get on his calendar, she noted, “but being on the golf course with him, you’re presented with an opportunity — an informal one, but still an opportunity.”

Mrs. Barnett, who took lessons to learn to play golf, said the time spent with clients on the course is important for establishing rapport and building relationships.

“When you spend three or four hours on a cart with a potential client, you get to know one another and [have] an opportunity to sell yourself,” said Mrs. Barnett of Toledo. “As a business person, it’s one of the tools you need in your toolbox.”

Women in other parts of the country are finding the same business opportunities on the golf course.

Hannah Wagner, 25, of Woodstock, Ga., was among 10 public relations professionals who enrolled in lessons recently at the Charlie Yates Golf Course in Atlanta. All were women, ranging in age from 23 to 55.

Ms. Wagner once took golf for college credit, but learned nothing more than how to hold a club.

This time would be different. This time learning the game promised her a place on the course where corporate deals are cut.

“In the business world, if you don’t know how to play golf, you’re left out of a lot of conversations,” she said. “I think it allows for more common ground between you and your boss, something more to talk about other than work.” While facilitating deals isn’t exactly the motivating factor behind the PGA of America’s efforts to increase women’s participation and retention in the game, the benefit isn’t being lost on women like Ms. Wagner.

Get Golf Ready, the class she and her colleagues recently enrolled in, is the golf industry’s version of an “on-ramp” to the game, said Sandy Cross, director of the PGA’s women’s and new market initiatives.

“Through research, we found there are millions of women interested in the game of golf, yet they remain unengaged,” Ms. Cross said. “Why? Because no one is telling them that this game is in fact for them and that they are welcome and invited to participate.” It used to be the majority of golf’s consumer marketing and golf course programming and events were geared toward men, who make up 80 percent of golf’s current customer base. Get Golf Ready, a series of five group lessons that promise to teach participants everything they need to know to get started playing the game, is changing that.

“We want to welcome women and introduce them to the joys of the game and the personal and professional benefits it will afford them if they engage,” Ms. Cross said. “This will require a transformation of the customer-service model within the golf industry in order to make it much more inviting to women and responsive to a woman’s value set.” Daryl Batey, the PGA’s player development regional manager for the Georgia and Atlanta markets, said the efforts are paying off.

Not only are women requesting more repeat courses, they’re signing up for more courses and clinics.

“The feedback from surveys has been very positive,” he said.

Mr. Batey, who has more than a decade as PGA head professional at Charlie Yates, said that “because women think and act differently than men,” making golf courses more user-friendly will mean changing the way they think and adding the things important to women such as cleaner locker rooms and better stocked golf shops.

“If you treat a woman right, they are going to tell somebody and they will come back,” Mr. Batey said.

Each of the five Get Golf Ready sessions typically runs 1½ hours and includes hands-on instruction, rules, chipping and pitching, and playing the game.

Asked about the reason for the focus on women, Ms. Cross said the industry could no longer afford to ignore half the population.

“I liken this to the realization that Lego toys had. For decades they catered to, and built products, for only 50 percent of the youth market: boys,” she said. “They came to the realization that they could no longer sustain their business with that model and launched Lego Friends, which is girl-centric and is allowing them to gain share.” Ms. Cross said that the golf industry initially succeeded catering only to men but to grow as an industry it has to get to know women in the same way. But she said, “We aren’t just focusing on women because inclusion is important. We are focusing on women because it makes good business sense.” Ms. Cross said participation in the game has dropped 20 percent over the past five years.

“Women are key to turning that around,” she said.

Contact RoNeisha Mullen at: rmullen@theblade.com or 419-724-6133

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution contributed to this report.



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