Symbols and Realities

August 12, 2016 9:01 am

By Grant Wright – CEO, World of Golf

There has been much discussion about the members of two famous golf clubs voting to accept that half of the planet are not male. These votes are used as a symbol to portray the sport, once again, as being old fashioned and out-of-touch. It was not modern of Royal Troon to accept female members, it was ridiculous that it took so long. The fact that Muirfield voted to maintain gender apartheid is abhorrent to modern society. That said, both of these things are just symbols. The reality is far more serious. It is all to easy for most golfers to think the Troon/Muirfield mindset is limited to these ancient clubs and their ancient members but the facts do not back this up. Women account for only 15% of the membership of UK golf clubs, despite the myriad of golf governing bodies prioritising increased female participation. For twenty years there have been campaigns to get more women into this fantastic sport and they have barely moved the dial.

The world has moved on, women’s rugby and football are enjoying huge growth with well considered, coherent marketing plans attracting young, and not so young girls to these sports. There is a phenomenon called roller derby which is a fairly violent, mobile wrestling match conducted on roller skates. It is marketed through social media to women and it has become one of the fastest growing sports in the world – and it was only invented a few years ago. Golf’s futile efforts have been going on for decades and membership has remained stubbornly at around 15%. Many sports including running, cycling, swimming, cricket and martial arts have been very successful at boosting female participation. Golf has achieved little if anything.

Now if golf was booming then this would be disappointing but not disastrous, but golf is going through a very difficult time with participation and membership in long term decline. At World of Golf we run the largest learn to play scheme in the world and it enjoys around 35-40% female participation. Our research has shown that many women want to learn to play golf but positively reject the idea of being a golf club member – it is not for them or people like them. They want to become holiday golfers. I know that most golf clubs are friendly and welcoming places. Where we have introduced women to the sport and then taken them to a local, supportive golf club, they have generally been pleasantly surprised. However, until something much more concrete is done, they are likely to feel like a minority because they are a minority of 15%. They feel like men do in Boots the Chemist – a bit out of place and a bit uncomfortable.

Modern sport is about marketing to maintain and increase participation. High participation means more talent identification and progression. Other sports get this and are better at it and prepared to be ruthless. Various estimates show that golf has lost 150 000 regulars to cycling. This did not happen by accident. Swimming is changing its rules so that relay teams will be mixed in future. Cycling highlights its female Olympic champions as much, if not more than the men. Triathlon went from being male dominated to near equality in seven years.

Golf is a unique and brilliant sport that combines physical and mental challenges in a special way. It’s sense of fair play and self governance provide valuable life lessons. It is too great a sport to gradually wither on the vine because we failed to realise that half of the population feel they don’t belong. I am no pessimist, but unless golf sorts this, as well as a shorter version of the game, then I believe the future is bleak. We are on a platform and I can smell smoke. It is time to jump in the future direction.

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