Retrofitting a golf course can boost women’s participation

Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir January 4, 2018 07:46

In the first of a three-part series exploring what the golf industry can do to increase the number of women playing the game, golf course architect Kari Haug, who specialises in designing facilities for women, explains why retrofitting a golf course can prove to be highly beneficial to a club’s bottom line

What is limiting the growth of women’s golf? Women’s golf participation numbers persistently hover around 23 and 14 percent in the USA and UK respectively, despite programme after programme designed to recruit new women golfers. In my estimation, growth can only occur if recruitment programmes are combined with customer retention programmes that keep patrons coming back. Without balanced attention to customer retention, grow-the-game initiatives are like a leaky pail that golf courses constantly spend money to fill.


Research shows that as many as 60 per cent of new golfers are women, however, only a fraction of women beginners are retained. Cost, difficulty of the game and time limitations have long been identified as factors that limit general growth of the game, however, in my opinion, there are additional issues that selectively affect women that need to be recognised and acted upon. These issues are rooted in social psychology and gender relations, and are manifest by a lack of inclusivity in all aspects of the golf industry. It is my opinion that marginalisation of women in each of the five following areas contributes to attrition of the female golfer:

  1. Golf course design
  2. Golf industry research
  3. Golf clothing and equipment
  4. Employment in the golf industry including executive directorships and coaching
  5. Media coverage.

The marginalisation women encounter in each of these five areas has either been unrecognised, trivialised or ignored (even by women themselves), contributing collectively to a golf industry that is not receptive or reflective of women, the demographic the industry has identified as having the greatest growth potential. It is my opinion that the exclusive atmosphere leads to attrition and a lack of growth of the game for women as well as other minorities. It’s time to properly recognise and emphasise the impact of marginalisation, and the very real participation and growth barrier it creates.

Kari Haug

Solutions to reducing marginalisation and subsequent attrition among women golfers may include:

  1. Retrofitting golf courses to fit the female golfer’s game
  2. Researching women’s hitting metrics and preferences to provide a credible basis for golf course architects and equipment manufacturers to develop products
  3. Improving the choice, quality and availability of golf equipment, clothing, and footwear for women golfers
  4. Increasing the presence of women role models at all levels of the sport, in industry jobs, and in governance
  5. Increasing media coverage of women’s golf.

This article will address solution one, part two will address solutions two to four, and part three solution five.

Retrofit the golf course to fit the women’s game

Course design that does not set up properly for the women’s game makes the sport more difficult for women to play. The significance of this issue should be easy to comprehend since difficulty of the game is one of the most salient problems identified as limiting growth of the game. Historically, golf courses were designed by men to fit the male golfer’s game. Forward tees were added to courses after a landmark design initiative by Alice Dye calling for a ‘two tee system for women.’ Her pioneering work improved playability of the golf course for women by shortening the tee to landing area distance, however, it is now time to take that initiative beyond the teeing grounds.

Modern golf course architects can respond to this call for a modernised approach by designing the full length of the golf hole to fit the hitting lengths, angles and trajectories of the shorter hitter. A more modernised approach must take into consideration the shorter hitter’s centerline beyond the tee shot, secondary landing areas which are often the most problematic for the shorter hitter, turning points, strategy of the green complex, receptiveness of the green for a lower trajectory approach shot, bail out landing areas and hazard playability and recovery options.

Designing the course to fit the design gender is such a simple concept but women golfers might be in disbelief to hear that most golf courses have not been designed to fit their game. Many women may think that they don’t play well because they don’t have proficient skills, however, the truth is that many women may have difficulty playing because the course and golf clubs simply are not designed to fit their game. Surely if the goal is to reduce the difficulty of the sport, it would be wise to start designing the course to fit the hitting metrics of women golfers.

A glass of wine or better course design?

Although a popular recruitment approach, it is not the wine, group lessons or flowers in the restrooms that keep avid golfers returning to the golf course year after year. The repeat customer, male or female, returns for the love of the golf experience: a combination of exercise, immersion in nature, post-round socialisation and sometimes competition. Women go to play golf – on the golf course, just like men. And if the golf course is a poor fit, they are less likely to come back even though social bonds may be strong. Non-existent landing areas for shorter hitters that shunt golf balls into the long rough, or worse, into hazards, make the game a long slog that sends exhausted potential repeat customers walking away (and they take their kids with them.)

Solutions to design problems for women start with the architect and should include involvement of women on design advisory committees. Women need to have a voice, a vote and be actively involved. In my opinion, it is the architect’s responsibility to ensure this happens even though the conversation with the owner may be difficult.

Kari Haug is a golf course architect and an associate member of the European Institute of Golf Course Architects (EIGCA). She owns a golf course architecture company that specialises in design of the golf course for women, women’s golf consulting and sustainable golf course design


Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir January 4, 2018 07:46
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