Why women's golf will continue to grow

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For too long overlooked and undervalued, women’s golf is now growing at an unprecedented speed with Europe's incredible Solheim Cup victory on US soil expected to boost it further. Georgia Hall, Catriona Matthew, Amy Boulden and Annika Sorrenstam discuss how the game builds on its recent success.

It wasn’t all that long ago that a sign stood outside the clubhouse of a very notable club that read ‘No dogs or women allowed’.

Thankfully, times and attitudes have changed since women were banned from clubhouses, or told they could only play at certain times on weekends. Yet golf still has a long way to go. 

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Women make up 50 per cent of the UK population, yet just 16 per cent of the nation’s golfers. Just a fifth of the members of the Golf Club Managers Association are female, and there are even fewer female greenkeepers. On tour, there’s a five-fold difference in prize money between the PGA and LPGA Tours.

Things are improving, though. The R&A launched its Women in Golf Charter, part of its drive to increase the number of women and girls playing golf and working within the industry. It also hiked the prize money for the Women’s Open by 40 percent, with R&A chief Martin Slumbers saying: “This is an important first step and we know it will take time to move closer to achieving parity with the men’s game.”

What is the Women in Golf Charter?

Mastercard have partnered with The R&A to sign the Women in Golf Charter as part of their wider commitment to drive inclusivity in sports. The aim is to encourage more women and girls to play the game and join clubs, inspire more families to enjoy golf as a group leisure activity and open up more opportunities for women to work within the golf industry

For more details see www.randa.org

Figures claim that tapping into a “significant latent demand among non-golfing women” could persuade as many as 37 million prospective new female players to take up the game, bringing an extra £28 billion into the global golf industry.

To gauge the current status of the women’s game – on tour and at club level – we spoke to four key players who really know what’s happening.

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Annika Sorenstam is arguably the greatest women's golfer of all time.

Annika Sorenstam, the greatest women's golfer of all time

Nationality: Swedish  Age: 50

Career highlights: Won 72 official LPGA Tour victories, including 10 Majors. She was named LPGA Player of the Year a record eight times and earned in excess of $22 million throughout her 15-year career on the US circuit.

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Catriona Matthew is a hugely successful golfer and captain of Europe's Solheim Cup team.

Catriona Matthew, Solheim Cup Captain 

Nationality: Scottish  Age: 51

Career highlights: A six-time LET winner, Matthew landed her maiden Major title at the 2009 Women’s Open and captained the European team to victory in the 2019 and 2021 Solheim Cups.

Georgia Hall is a Major champion, LET and LPGA winner and plays for Europe's Solheim Cup team.

Georgia Hall, Major champion

Nationality: English  Age: 24

Career highlights: Celebrated her first Major success in the 2018 Women’s British Open and has registered two LPGA Tour victories. In 2019, she was awarded an MBE for her services to golf.

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Golfer Amy Boulden was LET Rookie of the Year in 2014 and won last year's Swiss Open.

Amy Boulden, LET winner

Nationality: Welsh  Age: 27

Career highlights: LET Rookie of the Year in 2014, Boulden chalked-up her maiden LET win – on her 87th start – at the Swiss Open last September.

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Their views on what women’s golf has achieved – and what else can still be done – makes for fascinating reading...

How do you see the women’s game at professional level?

Annika Sorenstam It’s very strong. It’s a global game, it’s exciting, we play everywhere, and I think the players represent themselves well. They’re approachable, fun and great athletes.

Georgia Hall The LPGA is probably the best it’s ever been; well run, you’re well looked after with amazing events nearly every week… and it’s good news that the LET joined forces with the LPGA last year. Could it be better? Yes, of course, with bigger prize funds and more tournaments for the LET, but it’s getting better every year. 

Catriona Matthew Following the joint LET venture with the LPGA, we were in a pretty strong position at the start of the year and then Covid-19 came. I think the LET’s close links with the LPGA can only help, if only to get some more tournaments.

But overall I’d say it’s in a good position and hopefully by mid-to-late spring things will start getting back to normal if the vaccines kick in, enabling both tours to push on. OK, the LET probably won’t be playing for the biggest of purses, but I hope it’s something we can build on.

Amy Boulden I think the women’s game is in a great position. The support from people like Justin Rose with the Rose Ladies Series was amazing and I can see the women’s game only growing from this point. I’m excited.

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How about at club level?

AS I’m heavily involved with coaching junior players and I think it’s super-healthy. As far as junior girls’ participation is concerned, 16 years ago it was less than 20 per cent of our juniors, but that’s now up to 34 per cent. While there’s room for more growth, there’s some great initiatives and we certainly take pride in what the Annika Foundation does to inspire these young girls. It’s important to get them in early and plant that seed. 

GH The R&A have a great scheme where they’re trying to find the next generation. I went to St Andrews last year and there must have been 40 girls who’d taken up the game. I spent an hour with them, they were five to 10-year-olds, and it was great to answer their questions.

When I was younger, I never saw that many girls taking up the game. Hopefully the combination of the 2019 Solheim Cup, British players like myself and seeing more women’s golf on TV will inspire even more to get down to the driving range.

AB The programmes put in place now by the golf unions – compared to when I was growing up – are amazing. Juniors have a lot more opportunities.

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Mel Reid is a good role model for all female golfers.

How important is it to have female role models in golf?

AS It’s critical. By seeing their heroes playing, they’ll start to dream. It’s important, too, to have girl groups because it can be intimidating for girls around boys, who can hit it so much further. Girls want to be with other girls, they feel more comfortable.

GH It’s very important; growing up, I looked up to quite a few players. At 2019’s AIG Women’s Open at Woburn, I’d never seen so many young girls come out to support me and then wait for my autograph at the end. It’s important, too, to take time to meet all of them – you want to give a good impression and if I can get more girls involved and playing the game, that would be awesome. Who knows, say in 20 years, there’ll be a lot more British players on tour as a result.

CM It’s very important. At the moment, we’ve got Georgia, Charley Hull, Bronte Law and Jodi Ewart Shadoff, with more coming through; if you see people doing well it inspires you to do well, but if you’ve got nobody to follow it’s harder for you to get on. It definitely pushes you on. 

AB I used to love going to watch the Women’s British Open with my parents when I was younger and following all my favourite players. It’s so inspiring. I remember when Laura Davies gave me her visor one year (I still have it!) – to be playing on Tour with them now is crazy. There are many girls out on tour who will fill that role for the next generation with the likes of Georgia Hall and Mel Reid, then you have the girls who can hit it miles like Anne van Dam and Emily Pedersen.

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Women's golfer Anne van Damme is a big hitter.

How can the women’s game grow?

AS Exposure, awareness and opportunity – to make it more gender-friendly and to open it up in different areas where there are golf clubs and tournaments. One of the reasons why the Women’s British Open is doing such a fabulous job is that they’re picking classic, historical courses… I’ve always told everybody “Women like those courses, too!”

In 2007, we played St Andrews for the first time and then Troon, Turnberry and so on. That exposure is huge and that’s how we will grow women’s golf. We’ve a lot of room to improve, but things like what happened at Augusta National was a huge thing for junior golf… for those young ladies to play at the home of the Masters. We keep plugging away with the Annika Foundation and now have seven global tournaments involving over 600 girls representing 60 countries every year – in the last 12 years we’ve had 150 players turning pro.

GH Definitely media coverage… I don’t think we’re on TV quite as much as we should be. Also, I don’t see a lot of women on covers of golf magazines! When I won on the LPGA in Portland last year, I don’t think it was shown on the TV in the UK, probably because it was the same week as the men’s US Open. I got a few messages from friends saying that they weren’t able to watch me win.

CM We need to keep doing what we’re doing, getting more media exposure – and having a superstar from your own country does help. 

AB The game is developing all the time, everyone is always wanting to improve. The men’s game is changing so much with the likes of Bryson Dechambeau, and I can see the ladies’ game trying to gain that little bit more distance off the tee too – clearly it’s a big advantage.

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Georgia Hall won her first event on the LPGA Tour in 2020.

What would you like to see change?

AS You can find women’s golf on TV more now even though it’s still not primetime, so to speak. But it’s a start. Obviously the purses are going up on the professional tours, which is good news and great strides have been made regards equipment for women and young girls.

I remember in college, say 30 years ago, there was no women’s golf apparel – I had to wear men’s extra, extra small! Shoes, gloves, hats, clubs, bags… nothing came in women’s sizes and specs! The first thing manufacturers did was make it pink and say “This is for ladies”. Then, suddenly, it was decided to custom-fit apparel, hats, shoes and gloves. It’s a big industry and we all know that women make decisions when it comes to purchasing, so that was a smart move.

GH I’m on the LPGA Tour 95 per cent of the time and I think Commissioner Mike Whan is doing a fantastic job. Going from the LET to LPGA, there’s a big difference with everything – on the LPGA there’s always someone on hand to help you out whether it’s medical or you want to book something. You can’t expect the same from the LET, it’s much smaller, but it’s getting better.

CM Faster play. There’s culprits at every level and everyone knows who they are. The best way to deal with this is to penalise them with shots… that would soon speed things up! Fines just don’t work. 

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Do you think women’s golf receives the recognition and respect it deserves?

GH We’re pretty well respected – recognition, maybe not. A man who has won the equivalent to me is better known, maybe because more men play golf…

CM There’s been a huge change in the last 10 or 15 years in the whole perception of women’s sports in general and in golf we’re definitely seeing more ladies’ golf on television. When I was an amateur, the only one you saw on TV was the British Open. So that’s a big step forward. Events like the Solheim Cup can capture the imagination of even non-golfers. The more exposure we can get in the media, the more it filters down to participation.

AB It’s definitely moving in the right direction. The more we can have our tournaments on live TV and get more coverage, the better.

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Golfers Amy Boulden and Justin Rose in Saudi Arabia.

Can you ever see it getting to the same level as the men’s game? 

AS I don’t know about that...

GH I hope women’s golf will get to the same recognition and respect, but I don’t think we’ll ever match the prize money. That’s not an issue with a lot of us, we just want it to keep on improving and reach a level where the difference in money isn’t so stark – you won’t believe the difference as it currently stands. Obviously, I’m very thankful to do something that I love. It would be just nice to see it keep growing. 

CM Bryson DeChambeau’s power hitting has taken the men’s game to new levels and you can see that coming through in the ladies’ game, too: players coming through are all bigger and stronger, a combination of everything not just the equipment. People are better athletes. Everyone is looking to find that tiny edge.

AB The women’s game offers something different to the men’s. It’s far more relatable to the average golfer as our swing speed and distance off the tee isn’t out of reach. I can see the women’s game only growing, and whether that will reach the same level as the men, I’m not sure. But growth can only be positive.

Women's Golf In Numbers

Women's golf in numbers.

Can the men do more to help and promote the women’s game, like Justin did with 2020’s Rose Series? 

AS There’s no doubt that collaborations like the Rose Series last year can help, but Justin and Kate get the bigger picture, they do a lot with their foundation and I applaud them for that.

GH I understand they have their own careers and they’re very busy on tour themselves, but it wouldn’t hurt to have more help like that if we’re in the same situation again or putting on their own tour event in their name.

CM Having one or two events a year which involve mixed teams or combined events, having the women and men playing together, that all helps, especially in terms of variety, though I don’t think you’d want to do it every week. Paul Lawrie has done a lot in Scotland with events for men and women. You just need the top players involved; that’s the key.

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Charley Hull won the Rose Ladies Series, which proved a huge success.

Can more be done to make the women’s golf game truly global?

GH LPGA players are from all over the world, loads of Asian girls, but not too many British. Obviously it would be great to see more with players from new countries coming in; we’ve seen that in the past couple of years and I think that will continue in the next five to 10 years.

CM It’s about as global as it can be with about 29 different nationalities participating. To be honest, I think the women’s game has more global tiers than the men’s game. Golf coming into the Olympics has helped – countries that weren’t golf nations have pumped a lot of money into it because it’s an Olympic sport. I was lucky enough to play with a Nigerian girl who got an invite to play in the Scottish Open. That diversity is great.

AB The game would benefit from participants from all countries and ethnicities. The question is how to facilitate that from grassroots level to organisational level.

Recent times have been tough for the LET, so how would you like to see it drive forward now?

CM They’re going in the right direction and it’s great that more tournaments are scheduled in the UK and Europe in 2021. Players have the opportunity to play, which is key.

AB I think the future for the LET looks very promising. With the new partnership with the LPGA, I can see us gaining more events all around Europe. 

Annika Sorenstam with Tiger Woods.

What can women golfers learn from the men… and vice-versa?

AS I grew up playing with the boys at my golf club – mostly because there weren’t many girls. I think they made me tougher as I wanted to keep up with them. But I also think they learnt from me and when I turned pro I practised with the guys from my area and at the peak of my career, when I moved to Orlando, I started practising with Tiger. I learnt a lot from him and inspiration was one thing; I’d watch him hit balls and ask questions including on his different shots around the greens – he’d experiment a lot. I had my routines, but that helped my imagination as I explored different shots and tried different things.

I also learnt a lot from his concentration and focus and I got to a different level simply by practising with somebody better. I once asked him what he got from practising with me and he’d kind of say the same thing… I inspired him and he was interested that I found a lot of fairways and greens which he wasn’t doing at the time. We can learn from each other in different ways. We all try to reach our full potential – we all have different strengths – it’s a matter of how we put it all together…

GH I think the way we play golf within ourselves is very similar, apart from the obvious distance. The men’s short game is fantastic, while I reckon there’s a more diverse mix of swings in the women’s game. 

CM I think maybe the variety in the short game… perhaps the men are more willing to try different things, though a lot of the time those different shots are dictated by strength. They’re two very different games. It’s kind of comparing apples with oranges.

AB From my point of view, when I watch the men play, you can see how resilient and fearless they are, especially when they have a good round going… they aren’t scared. We can learn from that, I think.

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Annika Sorenstam and Henrik Stenson have joined forces to host the Scandinavian Mixed tournament.

Are you open to trying something new and fresh tournament-wise?

AS Well, hopefully the Scandinavian Mixed – postponed because of the pandemic in 2020 – will take place in 2021. I’m partnering Henrik Stenson and we’ll have men and women playing on the same course for one trophy. We’ll see how it goes, but initiatives like that open it up even more. It would be awesome to see tournaments where maybe we have a Major or something where you have 36 holes where the men play one course and the women play the other and I think we can both benefit from partnerships like that. 

GH I like the idea of the two European Tours coming together for a joint event – that would be fantastic and would get more people watching the women as well. Something like GolfSixes, but bigger.

Can Europe retain the Solheim Cup in America later this year?

AS I hope so. We have the tools, the players, the mindset and certainly the guidance. It’s becoming such a fun event and, fingers crossed, it’s going to be fun to watch.

GH For sure, and I think we’re going to have an extremely strong team as well. There’s a few players who have come up since the last Solheim, have won events and majors and they weren’t even in the team last time.

CM Definitely. We’ve got a good team coming together and obviously the core of the team will be the same as the last time. It’s going to be difficult – it’s always more difficult away from home – but we’ve a lot of players who have been winning and playing well.

AB I think European golf is looking as strong as it’s ever been. It won’t be easy to win in the US, but absolutely we can.

Europe will aim to retain the Solheim Cup they won so dramatically at Gleneagles later this year.

How do you see the future of the women’s golf panning out?

AS Not so long ago there weren’t any products for girls, but now thankfully girls can wear a girlie golf hat along with tee-shirts, apparel and, of course, clubs at their disposal, so they feel part of it. It also takes partnerships; I want to throw in Mastercard here because they are a big part of the Women in Golf charter with The R&A and their focus is really to grow women’s golf.

What can a golf club do? They can ensure equal opportunities for all, and obviously access to the course is important. These might not sound big things, but when you add them all up they make a huge difference. Also, the education and training to include women in roles at the club. We’re not talking about a revolution, just a more level playing field.

GH I see it going from strength to strength. In 10 years’ time I think the LET will be a lot stronger, and I think that more females will get into golf. It’s all about continued improvement. We’ve got the AIG Women’s Open at Muirfield in two years… who would have thought that would happen, say, 20 years ago? That’s a massive step forward.

CM With more money on offer it will become even more professional. When those opportunities arrive you get a more diverse mix of people wanting to get into the game – they see it as a chance to make a really good living.

I think you’ll see the women’s game developing along similar lines to the men’s game. It’s happening already. The players are getting stronger, fitter, taller and it’s definitely heading in the same direction… and it’s going to be great to watch.

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