Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Ladies Playing Through. How women are changing the face of golf in Westchester.

There has been much Twitter buzz on the state of Women's golf and so I have reprinted an article I wrote for Westchester Magazine.

By Stacy Solomon, Golf for Beginners

Golf may or may not be growing nationwide, but here in Westchester one big segment of the game is robustly rockin’ and rollin’ along.  It is golf played by women, and literally thousands of them are smacking the little white ball all over the county’s public and private courses—more of them than you think right down the middle of the fairway.

Why?  As marketing executive Sherry Bruck, owner of The Harquin Group observed, "In what other sport can you take a sixteen year old, a twenty year old, a forty year old and an eighty year old and go out together and have such a blast?"

Nearly two-thirds of all new golfers across the country are women, according to the National Golf Foundation.  Local organizations reports high participation, too.  The Women’s Metropolitan Golf Association (WMGA) has about 800 Westchester/Fairfield members.  The Metropolitan Golf Association reports TKTK women maintain handicaps and play at private clubs, with an unknown additional number playing without handicaps. Peter Tartaglia, spokesman for the Westchester Parks Department, says about 5,500 golfers on the county's six public courses are women.  That’s a lot of ladies chasing par.

As you would expect, there are both similarities and differences in the way men and women play the game.  Golf provides the same challenges and satisfactions for women as it does for men.  "Creativity is needed as well as control over your emotions," according to Alice Odorico, a thirteen-handicapper at Bonnie Briar in Scarsdale.  She adds that golf is not just a physical sport but requires mental toughness as well. Once a private banker, Odorico now has more time to dedicate to competition and plays in interclub matches around the region, although she says, “I love golf as a hobby, not a career."

Women also use golf as a business aid just like their male counterparts.  Avril Dawkins, an account manager at Aetna, says “I try to incorporate golf into every opportunity I get.  If we have an outing, I'll bring clients or consultants.”  Although she took lessons and practiced on the range, Dawkins was hesitant to play on a golf course until she joined the Executive Women’s Golf Association (EWGA). The plucky Mount Vernon resident now confidently drills her shots accurately down the fairway.  Dawkins cautions that when she plays with male business partners, it can be unnerving because they evidently feel they have to prove their manhood: "They pull out the driver even when they know they have no business hitting that club!"

All too often, a woman is still greeted with a sneer and a guffaw until she has proven herself on the tee because tolerance doesn’t come easy for some men. Beginner Karen Clark, a school teacher who plays at Maple Moor, says, "Initially, when you're out there and paired with men, they look at you like 'oh god...there goes my game.’ Then they see you can hit the ball and their jaws drop."

Cara Vietri, an analyst for Mastercard who averages 27 holes per week, points out that there are some basic differences between the way men and women approach the game.  "A guy who plays once a year will hit it 220 yards into the trees and spend ten minutes looking for it!" she says, whereas women are more sensitive to golfers behind them and will pick up golf balls during a blow-up hole.  “Men have that hunter-gatherer instinct. It's not hard-wired into women to search until we die!"

Bruck points out, men have always complained about the pace of play by women on the course even though, she asserts, "You'll actually find women play faster than men because women are so self-conscious about it."

Just like men, women are involved in the game at many levels, from hard-nosed formal tournament play to casual chase-it-around-the-pasture rounds with a weekly foursome.  On the competitive scene, the WMGA holds thirty hotly-contested events for golfers with an 21.0 or better handicap index.  "It's very intense," says WMGA Director of Operations Nancy Early. “The women can't wait to challenge other clubs to see how they're doing."

The EWGA, on the other hand, welcomes rank beginners as well as serious competitors.

"We offer women the opportunity to play the game for business and for life," says Westchester chapter President Sherri Wilson of Hawthorne, who adds that her day job as a manager of shopping center properties fuels her passion for golf as a getaway. She reports that the local group has 174 members, 34 of which are new members.

At Winged Foot in Mamaroneck, Assistant Pro Reid Johnson says a core group of twenty to thirty women still gathers on Wednesdays for regulation events and compete in WMGA-sponsored interclub team matches.  He adds that a new group of about twenty "niners" (who play only nine holes) has developed on Thursdays.  Different events such as seniors versus baby boomers and a new Ryder Cup format, where teams (the "Wings" versus the "Feet") compete in alternate shot and individual matches, add diversity to the weekly games.

Organized events at public venues have faithful followings and players must sign up early in the season to reserve a space.  One of the more competitive EWGA nine-hole twilight leagues takes place at Doral Arrowwood while other groups form weekly at Maple Moor and Sprain Lake.

As vibrant as the Westchester women’s golf scene seems to be, there may be clouds on the horizon.  Former Leewood Country Club member Bruck complained about her daughter’s lack of interest.  "Its hard to get her out on the golf course, and then she goes out and hits the ball like, a mile," Bruck says.  “When I ask her why she doesn't want to play, she says it takes a lot of time, its expensive, and her friends don't play."

Troy Tingberg, teaching professional at Bonnie Briar, points out, “I see lots of kids from five to ten years of age running around hitting balls and practicing in clinics" but there aren't any formal leagues at most country clubs for them.

"One of the problems is that we lose a lot of girls to other sports,” Westchester Country Club's Monique Thoresz adds.  “If a girl is athletic or strong or shows lots of promise, all the coaches from other sports want them too. So field hockey, lacrosse, softball and all the other sports compete with golf for players." The teaching professional pointed out that girls can and do compete on women’s interclub teams but none currently exist just for them.

That may change as more women become active in the sport, which will in turn create more role models for younger players and create more demand for instruction and structured competitions for youngsters.  Who knows, the growing number of women golfers might even force men to play faster.

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