The hot new way to hit the clubs: Golf has seen a dramatic upswing in female membership since the pandemic, with women now numbering a third of UK players. Katie Glass joins the tee set
- Katie Glass opens up about her experiences at different golf clubs across the UK
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We’re trying to send this little white ball some distance with some accuracy,’ says my golf instructor Sidney Trench, as the woman in front of me steps up to the tee. ‘Just do the natural thing.’ She nods, swings back her pink golf club and whacks the ball in the air. We hold our breath. The ball kicks back over her shoulder and whistles past my head, almost taking me and five other women out. We clap.
If ever there was a time to try golf, it is now. The recent Netflix documentary Full Swing has shed light on a flashy world of trophy wives and Rolex-wearing men with names like Justin, Jordan and Rory, engaged in epic power struggles in idyllic locations. The series follows professional golfers throughout a competition season. One of the majors is this month’s PGA Championship, with a $15 million purse, and the winner will receive a $3.6 million payout.
Full Swing reveals that golf attracts big money, and it’s a reminder of how, historically, this has been a sport for men. It may be a myth that ‘golf’ is an acronym for ‘Gents Only, Ladies Forbidden’, yet it’s still a game that conjures up clichés of businessmen doing deals on the course. It took the 2010
Equality Act to force some clubs to allow women in, and even then the change wasn’t immediate, with the Cardiff and County Club making amends in 2014, and Muirfield in Scotland only in 2017. A hangover from that misogyny was evident in February this year when Tiger Woods handed his playing partner Justin Thomas a tampon after outdriving him at the Genesis Invitational. Change is clearly going to take time.
But despite this lingering locker-room mentality, women are getting into the game like never before. Research undertaken for the R&A, England Golf, Golf Ireland, Scottish Golf and Wales Golf revealed that one in three players in Great Britain (34 per cent) is female, a number that surged during the pandemic from 400,000 in 2019 to 1.6 million in 2021.
Katie pictured at the Royal St George’s Golf Club, just outside Sandwich in Kent. The sport is attracting more and more women
Facebook group The Ladies Golf Lounge has nearly 10,000 members, who compare courses, discuss the game and plan trips. One such member is Issie Scurlock, 32, who took up golf after watching the social scene her enthusiast boyfriend enjoyed. She says, ‘Playing golf clears my head.’ Another is Rachel Locke, 47, who started playing alongside her husband. Now she’d choose a girly golfing holiday over a spa weekend.
At Lansdown Golf Club in Bath, I’ve joined a group of women shivering in the rain. The green is muddier than the PGA’s manicured lawns, but what this course lacks in Rolexes it makes up for in friendliness. There are about 30 female members, as well as a women’s captain, and general manager Trench gives weekly golf lessons to women of all ages and backgrounds.
My first concern is what to wear. Torn between the sexy athleisure aesthetic of the Instagram golf crowd and the more traditional Argyle sweater look, I opt for jeans, trainers and a padded jacket (the weather is freezing). On arrival at the course, I’m relieved to note the predominance of leggings and trainers worn with nothing more self-conscious than a slick of lipstick.
If these women aren’t doing it for the wardrobe possibilities, then is it for the health benefits? In February, a Finnish study concluded that golf was more effective than walking for reducing cholesterol and blood pressure in the over-65s. That said, another study (by the British Journal of Sports Medicine) seems to suggest that golf is only slightly less dangerous than cage-fighting; seven in ten amateur golfers and nine in ten professionals were shown to have suffered a golf-related injury at least once. I can testify that the only golfing term I really get the hang of is ‘fore!’, which basically means ‘duck!’.
Trench is reassuring. ‘It’s an easy game, but we make it hard,’ he says, telling us the main trick to being good at golf is learning to relax. ‘Caress the ball, don’t slap it,’ he says. ‘You’re trying to turn through the ball like a dance. Go slow and smooth – more waltz than rock ‘n’ roll.’ He taps the ball, sending it flying with effortless precision across the green.
I try, with less success. On my first swing I go in with as much power as possible, only to clip a huge clump of turf off the lawn.
As a keen gardener, this strikes me as a disaster. ‘That’s what we’d call a bad good shot,’ Trench says. On my next attempt I try to aim more carefully, only to knock the ball a long way short of the hole. Traditionally, women played from the red forward tee (nearest the hole). The white championship tee was furthest back and the mid-tee was yellow. Since 2020, a new ‘gender-neutral’ handicap system allows anyone to play from any tee, based on their ability. We learn to grip and putt then move on to driving. ‘The longer the shaft the more difficult it is to handle,’ Trench says. One woman sniggers.
On the other side of the country, The Royal St George’s Golf Club sits on manicured lawns just outside Sandwich in Kent. To play at the 136-year-old establishment you need a handicap of 18 or less, and it costs £275 a head. When women were allowed to join in 2015, some men threatened to cancel their membership, others ‘were concerned that the whole of Deal Ladies section would come marching up the road waving their handbags’, former club secretary Tim Checketts grins. Currently, 24 of the club’s 750 members are women.
At St George’s, I meet Linda Bayman, 74, who recalls the time women weren’t allowed in some clubhouses. When she played at one course with her husband and his friends, she’d have to sit alone on a bench while they went inside for lunch: ‘You couldn’t even go to the loo.’
She’s seen a dramatic ‘generational change’ as ‘old dinosaurs’ have moved on.
Bayman notes that childcare used to keep women from golf, and it is indeed hard to find time for a game that takes three hours plus lunch. But Sarah McDonald, 47 – Kent’s first female county secretary – took it up as a 27-year-old City trader and has embraced the culture: ‘There are a lot of business deals done on golf courses.’
One of few female members of the London Stock Exchange Golfing Society, McDonald plays proudly dressed in pink.
None of which means that St George’s, or indeed the wider golfing world, has completely given up on its blokey culture. In the mahogany-lined clubhouse, pictures of past captains line the wall, all of them men. Meanwhile, the course itself – I’m told – has a hole for which it is famous. The sixth, since you ask. Surrounded by hilly mounds, it is commonly referred to as ‘The Maiden’.
Like I said, change takes time.
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