It was once joked that golf stood for gentlemen only, ladies forbidden. While golf has never truly been an acronym for anything, this playful definition of it masked a troubling truth about the overall culture of the game. For a long time, golf has very much been off limits to women. Many clubs at the turn of the century welcomed men but prohibited their wives from entering their premises and sharing in the fun. This practice continued even when women like Babe Zaharias began to fine-tune their skills and compete at a professional level. How much has changed now? Not too much. Women are becoming more visible in golf, but not as much as they should be and certainly not in a way they’d like to be.
Do a simple exercise for us, will you? Go to your search engine, type in “women in golf”, and take note of the first ten results that pop up. Beyond a doubt, all of your results will loudly advertise that they have a list of the top 20 most beautiful women in golf for your viewing pleasure. You will have a much harder time of it locating the most skilled female golfer, the most flagrant personality on the LPGA or the one with the most inspiring story. Yet, you’d very easily find men in these distinct categories without even trying to look for them. We’ve heard all about Jordan Spieth, Phil Mickelson and Jason Day but nothing of their LPGA equivalents. A similar trend emerges when you look at how the media portrays golfers of each gender. Contrast how Lexi Thompson appears on the cover of Golf Digest with how Rory McIlroy does.
Pretty insane, isn’t it? We’d like to note that Lexi Thompson’s cover came out in May 2015, so this is hardly ancient history. It seems that the talent of a female golfer continues to matter far less than her ornamental value even in this day and age. As far as the golfing world is concerned, a woman, like a child, should be seen rather than heard. So even when women golfers do infiltrate the clubs or the tournaments, their looks are the only thing that anyone gives any significant attention to. Thus, an oppressive, age old cycle continues to be perpetuated well into the 21st Century.
How this affects women golfers professionally
It is small wonder then that an LPGA player is never taken very seriously even when she proves that she can hold her own against the best of the best. Jordan Spieth, a frequent contender for the world’s No 1 title, is constantly lauded for his impeccable skill, steady mental game and tendency to win some of the most prestigious championships. But how many accolades does the media heap on his equivalent in the LPGA, Inbee Park? Park doesn’t even have a contender among the Women’s World Golf Rankings, she just remains comfortably perched at the number one spot. That’s how good she is. She’s won as many majors as Spieth and even has better stats than he does in some respects. Take a look at the cold hard numbers and judge for yourself.
If you’ve had a close look at our stats for each player, you might be astonished to note that Park makes a mere 21% of what Spieth makes for roughly the same achievements. As you might be able to guess, she is not the only victim of this alarming discrepancy. The top ten LPGA players only make 23% of what the top ten PGA players make. As you might be able to tell by now, the effects of gender bias on female golfers doesn’t just mean that they don’t win as many popularity contests or appear on magazine covers with all their clothes on. The good old boy culture has serious professional and financial repercussions for every woman golfer striving to make a living through her game.
How does this affect the behavior of women in golf?
Women have long had to adapt to a culture that tells them to shut up and look pretty. Those involved in the golfing world are no different. When they are rewarded more for their willingness to strip than for their sportsmanship, many of them have felt the need to play up these dubious assets rather than their actual strengths. A quick browse through a good many female golfer’s instagram accounts or websites will yield several photos of them wearing little more than a thong and smoldering bedroom eyes. Sophie Horn is a prime example of this. An accomplished sports adviser who won the Norfolk County Championship three times as a child and the Under 21 championship when she was 15, she is much more well-known for being the “World’s Sexiest Golfer” and she definitely capitalizes on that. On her website, you would barely notice the text describing what she actually does beneath the lurid topless images taking up most of the HTML space available on each page. The fact that she and so many of her colleagues feel the need to cater to the demands of their audience speaks volumes of the inherently flawed and broken culture they inhabit and make a living in.
It’s not much better among women who are less visible in a literal sense. Golf blogs written by ladies for ladies don’t offer their readers particularly unique or insightful content on the game and its players. It seems they strive to do the opposite, gushing on about cute golf attire, the prettiest courses and of course, the PGA players who would make the best husbands (Jordan Spieth, most commonly). A good number of them have excessively pink backdrops and sport names that would be more suited to a teenager’s Tumblr account than a grown woman’s collection of writings (Pink Diva Golf or Golf Gurls, anyone?). It’s almost as though their sole purpose is to be as vacuous and unthreatening as possible. All across the board, women in golf are encouraged to perpetuate a vicious cycle that actively works against their own advancement. It is saddening that the vast majority of them seem to feel that they need to just make the best of a bad situation.
What other choice do they have?
Most good things don’t come by easily and granting women a voice has never been one of them. The rights women have today have been hard won by generations of suffragettes before us and it is thanks to them that the women in the world of golf no longer have to take to the streets for their rights. However, there are some difficult choices that lie ahead for them. Do female bloggers continue to make superficial posts about nothing much or do they go out on a limb to produce thought-provoking pieces that will ruffle some feathers? Will women golfers make the decision coast by on merit alone without shedding a single layer of clothing? Of course, there are certain things at stake when you go against the status quo. You risk ridicule, censure, attempts to suppress you and every golfer’s bane, a little bit of obscurity. But going against the grain is exactly what needs to happen to give golf culture the transformation it has been putting off for so long.
Inbee Park’s earnings may not be rising as quickly as her stature in the women’s golf rankings. However, she is a visible reminder that it is possible for a talented woman to become the very best in her field without making her sex appeal the first thing you notice about her. To top it all off, she manages to be outspoken without sacrificing her dignity, famously taking on the Olympics committee for not allowing the very best players to compete because of nationality. Off the course, positive change seems to be creeping its steady way into the public consciousness. The Women’s Golf Journal, a new golf zine coming out this December, seems like a promising start to a new generation of sleek, stylish publications that actually cater to women in golf in a non-exploitative, engaging manner.
Maybe one exemplary female golfer and one progressive golf zine seem like mere drops in the ocean, but if every other passionate female golfer followed suit, they’d eventually become impossible to ignore, dismiss or silence. Imagine women becoming bold enough to create a golf culture of their own where they’re allowed to speak openly about issues that concern them, whether it offends the bigwigs or not, and earn a salary worthy of their exceptional performance on the course. Imagine such a movement powering on despite the inevitable backlash and establishing a foothold in the minds of golfers and their fans all around the world. After all, that’s how gender equality and civil rights came about in the first place. When a group refuses to enable its own marginalization, people have to sit up and take notice.