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June 2020

A Time for Action

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As the golf industry calls for more diversity, change is still slow.

By David Gould

Whenever the golf industry or individual companies within it have tackled major challenges and come up short, you are bound to hear observers blame the misfire on people “doing things the way we’ve always done them.”

Breaking free of that mindset, say experts who study organizations throughout the economy, is dependent more and more on diversity. At U.S. investment giant PGIM — the asset management arm of Prudential Financial — Kathy Sayko puts that belief into action on a daily basis.

“Varied life experience and diverse backgrounds lead to better business outcomes,” says Sayko, whose title is chief inclusion and diversity officer. “And yes, there’s a challenge in holding to that concept. It’s harder to recruit and develop people of different backgrounds, and it’s harder to orchestrate meetings where everyone isn’t nodding their heads in agreement. But along with being harder, it turns out to be wonderful.”

Golf’s traditionalism is part of its charm, but a century of decision-making by white males has produced inside-the-box thinking and a feeling among those on the outside that their input isn’t welcome. Opening golf to women — the game and seemingly the business as well — is an initiative that now draws consensus approval. What’s left, apparently, is the hard work of recruiting and developing that Sayko refers to. 

“The urgency around getting more girls and women to play the game is something males in the industry now definitely feel and express,” says Karen Moraghan, president of Hunter Public Relations, a leading PR and media agency serving golf. “Expanding participation is seen as a business imperative. But that’s a different challenge than expanding high-level executive opportunities for women.”

Moraghan was recently invited to a career session at a golf academy for elite junior girls, where she balanced positive words about future opportunities with candid assessments of what success truly requires.

“Our agency has served many of golf’s leading companies and venues over a long period of time — to do that successfully has taken intense focus and effort,” she says. “Along the way it’s been hard to find time to reflect on things like diversity and women’s roles in the industry.”

In any given economic sector, achievement by women is often measured by the rate at which they rise to CEO positions. A survey from 2017 by consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas led off with a blanket figure of 18.4 percent across all business sectors — there were 993 CEO positions filled that year, 183 of them by females.

The report then listed the sectors most and least likely to feature women running companies. Automotive, chemical and telecommunications saw zero CEO roles go to women in 2017. Aerospace, energy and transportation gained just one new female CEO each. Countering those stats were the nonprofits, with 58 new female CEOs appointed in 2017, followed by financial services with 24 and hospitals with 22. (Smaller industries like golf weren’t measured, but its track record is indisputably more like aerospace than nonprofits.)

Back in 2012, a new CEO was needed at Ahead, the prominent apparel, headwear and golf accessories company. Hired for the job was Anne Broholm, who previously served as global sales manager for the golf division of Cutter & Buck. Prior positions of responsibility at Imperial Headwear, Liz Claiborne and other well-known brands helped prepare Broholm to take the top spot at Ahead. Today her views on gender equality in business focus on diversity-driven group dynamics that spark decisive change.

“Now more than ever, it’s critical for businesses and organizations to consider diverse input when crafting strategies — especially long-term strategies,” says Broholm. “Golf is seen as a white male sport that largely attracts participants of a certain age. While there is truth to that, there’s also wide recognition that the key to successful growth for golf is to attract an increasingly diverse blend of participants. Our workforce at Ahead is quite diverse and that helps inform our decisions.”

Up the road from Ahead’s main office in New Bedford, Massachusetts, is one of the industry’s most storied firms, Acushnet Co., which entrusts its immense Titleist Golf Ball business to the leadership of company veteran Mary Lou Bohn. For anyone who wishes golf would tap into a broader talent pool, the only negative about this female executive’s story is how few parallels it has.
The daughter of a brilliant amateur player — with whom Bohn won two state father-daughter championships — she had a golf pedigree plus an aptitude for business that pretty much neutralized the issue of being female in a male-dominated environment.

From 1987 through 2016, when Bohn was put in charge of Titleist Golf Balls, she ascended steadily up the organizational chart, mainly in marketing and advertising positions. It’s scarcely a matter of dispute, given the $500 million-plus in annual sales Bohn oversees, that she cuts a higher profile than any woman in the history of the golf industry.

You could possibly consider Sheila Crump Johnson as a rival for that distinction, except that Johnson’s monumental achievement as a business woman predated her time in the golf industry. Co-founder of Black Entertainment Television, or BET, and the first African-American woman to attain a net worth of at least $1 billion, Johnson took her lofty place in the golf market when she founded Salamander Hotels and Resorts, which she manages as CEO.

The company’s portfolio includes the Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club on the Florida Gulf Coast, the Half Moon Resort golf complex in Jamaica and Salamander Resort & Spa in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. In 2013, on the recommendation of former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the USGA approached Johnson about becoming the first African-American woman to serve on its fifteen-member executive committee. Johnson agreed to have her name go on the ballot and won election easily.

“We have so many groups, women and people of color who love golf, but aren’t feeling included inside this bubble,” Johnson commented, when asked about her interest in the USGA role. “We need to start a whole PR and marketing campaign to let people know that we want to be inclusive rather than exclusive.” Playing opportunities for women have been part of the program at Innisbrook, where Johnson has hosted LPGA Legends tournaments as well as events on the LPGA developmental tour, now called Symetra.

Looking for women of influence in a facet of golf such as club manufacturing R&D is different from looking for them in a niche like golf media. At Golf Channel alone, Molly Solomon, Andrea Starkey and Pepper White have risen high in the executive ranks.

Solomon has overseen TV production at Golf Channel since 2012, but — even before the pandemic led to cancellation of pro golf events — higher-ups at NBC Sports Group (of which Golf Channel is a unit) named her to the additional position of executive producer and president of NBC Olympics Production. That posting put Solomon, an 11-time Emmy Award winner, in charge of the entire day-to-day editorial production of NBC’s Olympics coverage, beginning with this year’s Summer Games in Tokyo, which have been postponed for now.

Andrea Starkey holds the title of vice president, strategic programming and partnerships at Golf Channel. She brokered the 2013 agreement that elevated Golf Channel’s relationship with the Executive Women’s Golf Association to Corporate Partner status. Part of that arrangement was an initiative to send the channel’s on-air talent to EWGA events around the country to help build awareness around women’s participation in the game. The strategy extended to the company’s GolfNow unit, with a push to encourage special incentives for women to go online to purchase tee times.
Starkey’s colleague Pepper White arrived at Golf Channel with the perspective of a woman of high achievement in broadcasting and sports who hadn’t worked in golf and didn’t, until then, play the game. As she went from raw beginner to novice to experienced golfer, she saw and felt all the impediments that adult women beginners run into.

“Golf industry people who have played the game their whole lives have a general awareness of these barriers,” White acknowledges, “but that’s very different from having lived it, as I did. Diversity in the workforce gives you those starkly differing personal experiences. It drives innovation by generating a broader range of ideas, and the ideas have passion to them, plus important specifics, because they come straight from life.”

Among female captains of the golf industry, Megan LaMothe of Foray Golf speaks a language of change quite emphatically. The New York City-based golf apparel company LaMothe founded in 2016 is all about design and branding that make the customer “feel like her most authentic self” dressed in Foray clothing. “Most golf clothing felt like a costume — conservative and old-fashioned,” LaMothe says, recalling her pre-startup research. “There was very little innovation in fabric and styling, and even less attention paid to what the consumer was interested in, in her daily life.”

Commentary like that represents a real pivot: It ditches the old challenge of helping women — the outsiders — fit into golf’s traditional culture, in favor of a stance in which the female golfer shows up as the person she really is and in the process brings some originality to the golf scene. 
Throughout the industry there are signs that a cultural shift favoring new dimensions of diversity is likely to endure. One of those indicators is the presence of Sandy Cross at the PGA of America, where she serves as chief people officer and where she broke some barriers in 2014 by successfully launching the PGA’s Diversity & Inclusion initiative.

Like Andrea Starkey at Golf Channel, Cross has shown herself to be adept at partnership-building, including with such key organizations as PepsiCo, Omega and National Car Rental. One generalization about women in business that seems to stick involves their successful cultivation of strategic partnerships. Cross further deserves credit for leading the golf industry’s “Connecting With Her” initiative — which helped build a foundation for the PGA’s inclusion programming.

Creating high-level executive positions like the one Cross fills helps ensure a continuing effort toward more diversity-driven innovation, for an industry that got a late start in that regard. It’s an indicator that the days of doing things “the way we’ve always done them” might be firmly in the past.

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