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More and more golf courses rolling out the welcome mat for women

Lisa AllenBy Lisa Allen,
Brittany Lang - 2009 LPGA Sybase Classic
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LPGA Tour stars aside, the reality is that the average handicap for a woman is 31, especially for older women, according to Alice Dye. (Dio Dipasupil/Eclipse Sportswire)

Ironically, it might just be the rotten economy that propels forward a decades-long, glacial-speed evolution to make golf courses more welcoming to a wider range of golfers.

The core of that wider group is women.

"In the last few years it's gotten a particular push from the decline of the traditional players - middle-aged white men. Their participation in golf has flattened," said Chad Ritterbusch, executive director of the American Society of Golf Course Architects. Men still comprise 72 percent of golfers, but the percentage is dropping.

Trying to make the industry more welcoming to a diverse group of players has been a long road, beginning decades ago with famed golf course designers Alice and Pete Dye at the fore.

Alice Dye was one of the top female amateur golfers in the country, winning the 1968 North and South Women's Amateur Golf Championship and the 1978 and 1979 United States Senior Women's Amateur Golf Championship. Her playing experience is very evident in her course designs.

Among the many courses she and Pete designed are the Stadium course at TPC Sawgrass in Florida, Whistling Straits in Wisconsin and the Ocean at Kiawah Island Resort in South Carolina. She was the president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects in 1998, and in 2004, she was named First Lady of Golf by the PGA.

What women need

"If you look at any of our courses, you can putt your way around them," Alice Dye said. "That's because women can't clear long carries." Their courses always give them a way around a hazard, a way out.

"Women and high-handicap players have a lot of trouble with a forced carry," Alice said. And the Dyes have done the math. Most women can't carry much more than 90 yards, even off the tee.

"It's hard for golf pros," Alice said. "They have never played with a women, or if they have, she's a really good player. For the typical woman golfer, she has a 130 yard drive, and that's a good drive."

The reality is that the average handicap for a woman is 31, especially for older women. "Anyone over 50 hasn't been to the gym," Alice said. It wasn't proper then for a woman to be fit and muscular.

As for younger women who do work out, many are stuck playing the same set of tees as every woman, regardless of ability. It means the good women golfers don't play with the ladies leagues but try to compete with men, on their tees.

Pam Swensen, CEO of the 18,000-member EWGA (Executive Women Golf Association), hears it all the time. "As a women-based organization, we get a lot of feedback from the women's perspective."

And those women are clear about what they want. Their criteria is spelled out by the EWGA.

The organization has a self-reporting checklist for golf courses. If they pass muster, they are listed on the EWGA Web site.

The first step is to acknowledge that not all women golfers are the same. It was Alice Dye who developed a two-tee system for women, with both sets providing handicap, slope and rating for women.

Meeting the standards

To meet the EWGA criteria, that data should be easy to find. One tee should measure 4,600 to 5,300 yards, the other 5,300 to 5,800. Carries of more than 50 yards for the front tees and 140 yards for the second should have clearly marked drop areas.

Put distance markers inside of 100 yards. "This is where women think strategically," Swensen said.

Women look for clubs that treat everyone the same, regardless of gender, from the bag drop to the snack bar to the starter. They expect to find women's clubs and women's clothes in the pro shop. Ideally, there is a clean restroom every six holes.

"Women and juniors make a big percentage of new golfers," said Vicki Martz, director of environmental design for Nicklaus Design. Forty one percent of beginner golfers are women. The key is to keep them playing.

What women sometimes get

"There are still too many golf courses that neglect what women need," Martz said. "The women's tees aren't even level."

At many courses, there is no strategy or thought of where the forward tees are located. "Just get them out of the way," Martz said.

"We have tried so hard to lengthen courses for the Tiger effect ... but we think of the typical male driver, the typical number crunching. A woman can drive only 150 yards and hit a 7 iron only 100 yards."

But if the course just makes the hole 25 percent shorter for women, regardless, it's often not a playable hole for women. "Put the forward tee so she can use the same club selection (as men)," Martz said.

If architects are mindful of women off the tee, they sometimes forget about them for approach shots, Alice Dye said. With a hazard across the fairway on an approach shot without an alternative, a woman is stuck. "That would be impossible for a woman. She couldn't hit anything but the bunker."

Dye quickly adds one shouldn't eliminate all hazards for women but give them a way out. "I'm not saying there can't be a bunker across the green, but take part of it away." Go easy when adding "lipstick" to a bunker.

And the two-tee system isn't ubiquitous yet.

"The big problem is with private clubs," Dye said. "Men want a club with 7,000 yards, but they don't play it, they play 6,000 yards." They don't want tees short enough to accommodate most women, about 4,800 yards.

"The pros at the clubs work for the members, and the members are men. They aren't going to take the time to refigure rankings and handicaps for women. They don't really care a lot."

The newer golf courses

But the evolution is taking place.

"When you look at the golf course developed in the past 10 years, clearly they accommodate a broader set of players," Ritterbusch said.

"There isn't an architect I know of that doesn't think of women," Martz said. Virtually every course is now designed with a five-tee system, two for women.

There are more opportunities to avoid forced carries with designers putting necks around hazards, providing more bail-out areas and more alternate routes to get to the green. They give golfers a safe place to go.

But with course-building stagnant, course owners are inviting in architects to revisit existing courses to make them drain better and attract more players, Ritterbusch said. They are adding tees or reassessing tee placement.

"If a course was designed 50 years ago and maybe inviting in the public for the first time, they are having to reposition themselves."

The environmental factor

In the 1980s and 1990s the trend was for lush, soft fairways, like Augusta National. That eliminates roll and leaves women even shorter.

As sustainable design becomes more common, fairways are getting drier and firmer, which favors golfers who rely on roll - young, old or female golfers.

But it shouldn't be a cakewalk.

"At least three or four times off the tee, a woman should be offered the same risk/reward as men," Martz said. "If you're never challenged, you'll never get better."

In 25 years as a course architect, Martz has finally seen sustainable golf take root. "I've been preaching this for years, of not irrigating as much but in a more targeted way."

As with anything, golf design goes through phases. "In the 1990s, target golf was really in. That was because of Jack Nicklaus, because that was his game," Martz said. "We're getting the bump and run back into the game. That's because the course is getting firmer and faster."

To speed up play, courses aren't making fairways wider because they were wide to start with but making the transitional rough cut shorter.

There are a lot more types of hazards rather than just bunkers and water. At the green, they are creating roll-offs rather than bunkers, Martz said. The changes keep the ball on the ground longer, which favors women.

"Golfers are getting tired of the same type of courses," she said.

A warm welcome

Another key is giving women and beginning golfers a welcoming place to learn. Women want to learn the game in an easy-going atmosphere at a time of the day where they don't feel they are holding anyone up, Martz said.

That "hurry, hurry, hurry" theme still drives a lot of women golfers. "As a women golfer, I didn't line up my putts well because I never wanted to hold up anyone else," Martz said.

"Make it fun and easier to get into the game. A lot of women think they are out of their element. I belong to a nine-hole league. I drive 45 minutes to be there." As far as she knows, it's the only after-work women's league in Jacksonville, Fla., a city of more than 1 million.

The bottom line

A key point Pam Swensen makes during her many presentations at golf industry gatherings is the goal: Dollars.

EWGA has had 100,000 members in its 18 years of existence. Each chapter, with an average of 140 members, spends about $500,000 a year locally on golf. The organization's 18,000 members spend $75 million on golf a year.

"We've earned a right to have a say in the industry," Swensen said. "We feel we can talk with our purse."

"Everyone is looking at ways to attract and retain customers," Swensen said.

The first step an owner can make to make their course more female friendly is to "secret shop your own course."

Play your course from the red tees. Notice the lack of ball washers, trash cans and water stations. All are back at the men's tees.

Now is the time to do something about that.

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Lisa Allen is a golf, travel and business writer based in Beaufort, S.C. She has edited newspapers, magazines and books in Michigan, Indiana and South Carolina. Follow her on Twitter @LAllenSC.

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