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June 2019

Buying into the Game

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Women are now significant players in revenue stream

By Steve Eubanks

It was one of the most talked-about scenes in golf history, and arguably one of the greatest moments for women in the game.

Those who were there called it one of their most memorable experiences. All because a group of talented young women, athletes in skirts, marched down the fairways of Augusta National in an amateur event for the first time. Confident. Happy. Historic.

Prior to Tiger Woods weekend at the Masters, the talk in the game was about the Augusta National Women’s Amateur and the final-round duel between eventual winner Jennifer Kupcho and Maria Fassi. So compelling was the event that the winner and runner-up, two 21-year-olds, appeared on TODAY as well as the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon – not exactly golf-centric outlets. 

Another overlooked, but equally important, aspect of that event was found outside the ropes where a large percentage of the spectators (“patrons” in Augusta vernacular) were mothers and daughters.

What you also didn’t see unless you were there was how Augusta National capitalized on the women’s event. No numbers are available – the National guards those like the nuclear codes – but the merchandizing sales of items bearing the Augusta National Women’s Amateur logo were astronomical. Every register in the merchandise area was packed. Most of the purchasers were women.

The same has been true at Country Club of Charleston, host site of this year’s U.S. Women’s Open, where event-specific merchandise, from headcovers to handbags, T-shirts to Tiffany glassware, have flown off the shelves faster than managers can get them in. And not just during the event itself. Women buy merchandise for women-centered events months prior to the first competitive shots getting airborne, a trend that exceeds most men’s events not held at iconic locations like Pebble Beach. 

Mario Guerra had just stepped into the role of head professional at Quaker Ridge Golf Club in Scarsdale, New York, when the club hosted the 2018 Curtis Cup. He was floored by the brisk sale of logoed merchandise.
“Our buyers did fantastic job of anticipating the demand from women for merchandise related to a women’s event like this,” Guerra said in the club’s teaching center next to the 18th fairways as the matches took place. “I wasn’t here for the (1997) Walker Cup (which was played at Quaker Ridge during the height of Tigermania) but I understand from those who were that the demand here (for the Curtis Cup) is greater than it was then.”

The lesson is clear: Women reward operators and institutions that care about women. If Augusta National, Quaker Ridge and Country Club of Charleston, all high-end private clubs, could offer one takeaway to mom and pop operations everywhere it would be: cater to women and they will come in droves. 

It should surprise no one that women are the primary purchasers in all households. According to statistics compiled by the Federal Reserve, Nielson and Gallup, the purchasing power of women in America is between $10-$15 trillion ($20 trillion worldwide) annually with 60 percent of all household purchasing decisions being made by women. 

What might come as a surprise is the fact that 40 percent of the married women in America now earn more than their husbands, double the number from a generation ago and quadruple the number from 1970. That trend line continues to move in the direction of women earning more, living longer and remaining more active outside the home than men. 

That has a direct impact on golf. As Stephanie Peareth, the LPGA Girls’ Golf director for Miami put it, “[Nationally,] We had 5,000 young girls playing golf in 2009. In 2019, we have 86,000 and counting. That is what you call a trend.” 

Ten years ago, women and girls made up 18 percent of the total golf population. Today, that number is a conservative 38 percent. In any other industry, that kind of shift in the customer base would generate international headlines. In golf, some people still haven’t noticed.  

“Women are feeling much better about being invited to the game,” said Suzy Whaley, the first female president of the PGA of America who was one of the patrons in Augusta watching Kupcho have the best back-nine finish since Jack Nicklaus in 1986. “We at the PGA of America have had an allied campaign to not just invite women to the game – PGA professionals have tried to do that for years and we’ve been talking about it for years – but we have put tangible efforts behind it, now. We’re making it a real invitation. We’re not just saying to women ‘You’re welcome at our club.’ We’re inviting you to our club on Thursday at 5:00 for six holes of golf and a social gathering afterward. We have off-course sites that are making golf really fun. Women are seeing that they can enjoy the game with their families.”

Smart operators are doing more than inviting. They are harnessing the tsunami of women golfers for greater profits. Whether it is retooling the merchandise to cater to an active and athletic women’s market, adding fitness classes that are both golf- and women-centered, or doing things as simple as retooling the bar menu to women’s tastes. Savvy club owners see women as the future of their business. And they are responding accordingly.

“I can’t tell you how impactful women and girls have been in merging golf and fitness,” said Jamie Arion, a nationally recognized physical wellness coach and personal trainer specializing in golf fitness. “Women and girls don’t just pick up golf clubs and decide they’re going to play. We enter the game with a plan. Lessons, practice, and a big part of it for women is fitness because, in a lot of cases, they are getting into golf for the social interaction, family interaction, but also to be more active; to be healthier. It’s a lifestyle thing.” 

How’d it all begin?

So, how did this women’s movement happen? The initiatives Whaley described, the business shifts that Arion mentioned, and those initiatives the LPGA has in place with its Ladies Amateur Golf Association, were in their infancies when this demographic shift occurred. What drove women to golf in such large numbers? 

It was a confluence of forces. In 2009, when the female participation rate was 18 percent and 5,000 young girls in the entire country played golf, the game was in crisis. Because of the Great Recession, operators had to innovate. Survival depended upon generating new customers. Women and girls should have been the lowest hanging fruit.

Still, many operators missed it. They tried leagues; they relaxed dress codes; they piped music onto their ranges and put kegs on the 10th tee in an attempt to bring out the millennials. All the while, a huge under-served market was right in front of them.

“Look, a lot of operators have made women feel more welcome now, but we still have a long way to go,” said Diane Whitman, an instructor at several ClubCorp facilities in metro-Atlanta. Whitman and her fellow instructors have the largest lesson business in the entire ClubCorp network. A big percentage of that business comes from women and girls. “In the old days. whether it was a local muni or the best country clubs, gals simply knew that they weren’t welcome. You can walk into a place and know immediately whether or not you’re wanted. For a long time, women weren’t wanted.” 

The Great Recession changed all that.

Operators realized that, with time as the biggest constraint on play, the abbreviated round was a good revenue source. Public operators began charging by the hole. Play three, pay for three. Play six, pay for six. Suddenly a round of golf wasn’t 18 holes with a 9-hole option late the afternoon. A family could go out at 5:00 for four holes and dinner afterward. The USGA even got into the act, promoting shortened rounds with their Play 9 campaign.

“That is huge in bringing women into the game,” Whaley said. “Golf doesn’t have to be 18 holes. You don’t have to play 18 holes and play well in order to be a golfer. A lot of women say to me, ‘Oh, no, I’m not a golfer.’ What they are really saying is, ‘I’m not a good golfer,’ or ‘I’m not a competitive golfer.’ We are working to change the vocabulary, to have women say, ‘Oh, yes, I’m a golfer. I love golf.’

“Golf is so much more than performance. It’s about going out with your friends for three holes or four holes or six holes and having a social hour afterward. It’s about going out with family and maybe hitting two putts and one drive but being outside and enjoying all the benefits that go with that.” 

Growing the Initiative

The other two programs that facilitated growth in the women’s game were PGA Junior League and the LPGA-USGA Girls Golf.

“The girls programs are hugely successful,” Peareth said. “Those girls want to be here seven days a week because the golf course is where their friends are. I grew up with no other girls playing golf. I played on the boys’ teams and in the men’s events. Today, I have 200 girls in my girls’ program. And my ladies’ program is successful because of my girls’ program.

“A lot of women I teach are moms of my girls. I’m seeing exponential growth potential there because the girls want to be here (at the course) every day. Moms want to spend time with their daughters. If you want to spend time with your kid who is playing golf every day, you’re going to learn to play golf.” 

Successful operators are taking advantage of that trend. Father-daughter events have become mother-and-child outings with a meal afterward that includes vegetarian stir-fry along with traditional burgers and hotdogs.
One club in the mid-Atlantic saw a huge spike in its food and beverage revenue after doing nothing more than adding flavored vodka to the bar menu.

“It’s not about any one big thing,” said Tim Dunlap, who manages two courses in southern California. “It’s a feeling. You do something that makes women feel welcome – whether it’s adding an item to the menu or putting some thought into the merchandising beyond the skirts in the corner of the shop. It’s your music choices; it’s the color of the chairs. Women know when you’re being mindful of them. As a rule, they reward that mindfulness.” 
Some of that stems from how women were introduced to golf. One of the biggest drivers in putting clubs in women’s hands was the game’s first nightclub: TopGolf. 

“Places like TopGolf have lowered inhibitions,” Whitman said. “What I’m seeing from some of the younger women that I’m working with, they didn’t think they would ever play golf. Then they went to TopGolf and were like, ‘Hey, this is alright.’ So, it has been great initial exposure for a lot of gals.”

Whaley agreed. “Any time you can open the ramp as big as possible, it’s a good thing,” she said. “We (at the PGA) are partners with TopGolf. We want to make sure that people who are enjoying TopGolf understand the next step if they want to play golf at a facility nearby. But nobody feels that they need to be tremendous at the game to have a good time at TopGolf. We have to translate that same feeling to green grass facilities.” 

Getting with the Program

Operators need to recognize the seismic shift in their markets and make the most of it. Whether it’s tables, chairs, wine and cheese on the range during a clinic; a three-hole event followed by a healthy meal, or something as simple as moving a forward tee to a location that makes more sense for women, course owners will be rewarded for listening to the fastest-growing segment of the game and responding to their needs.

“Sometimes it’s as simple as adding a female instructor,” Peareth said. “Golf for women, taught by women, that’s a big part of it. I have a lot of ladies say to me, ‘I wish I’d had you 10 years ago when I was with a man. I’m starting to enjoy it now.’ Having a women’s perspective can make all the difference. We let women know that this isn’t an old-man sport. It can be fun; it can be colorful; it can be creative. That’s what we’re changing.” 
  And, according to Peareth, it is what will continue to change. “Not only can (women’s participation continue to grow), I think it’s inevitable that it will,” she said. “Girls programs are growing by the day. Those girls are going to grow up into women. Some of them might leave the game. But a good many will be in it for life.”

Those changes can be seen everywhere from mom-and-pop courses to some of the largest companies in the industry. John Solheim, the chairman of Ping, attended the launch of the LPGA’s new branding campaign “Drive On” in Phoenix, not because he wanted to be seen as part of a trend, but because his company has been in the women’s space for decades.

The Solheim Cup was created by his father, Karsten, and mother, Louise. And for years, a Ping set of clubs tailored for a woman looked no different than the set a man would play. There were no pink butterflies or flowery stamps on the clubheads – features women recognize as condescending. “We support golfers,” Solheim said. “Women, men, young, old: this is what we do. It’s what we’ve always done.” 

For operators to thrive, they must do likewise.

“Women aren’t just the Thursday morning ladies day,” Whitman said. “When I work the KPMG Women’s PGA golf clinics, I’m meeting the director of this, the chief executive of that, the lead counsel for the other. Those women are seeing golf as a business tool. The four women who sat at my table at the last KPMG PGA clinic I worked were all in the financial sector. And as we sat there they were like, ‘Hey, when can we go tee it up? Let’s go. We can discuss this project over golf.’ It’s incredible to see that in the women’s world now.
“The conversation has changed dramatically,” Whitman said. “For the better. And hopefully for good.”  

 Steve Eubanks is an Atlanta-based freelance writer and New York Times bestselling author.

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