The world’s best female players are teeing up at Muirfield this week. An occasion that highlights how much has changed for women in golf, but also reminds us just how wrong things were for so long. All the talk in the build up to the tournament has been about a club that only admitted women to join in 2019.
It has never been a better time for girls to take up the game. Just like the positive impact the European Championship-winning Lionesses have had, women on golf courses will become the norm rather than the exception.
But when you are immersed in golf, it is easy to see that it still isn’t the same for men and women. To understand this, you need to recognise the background of the game.
The first women’s single-sex golf club was opened in 1867. The St Andrews Ladies Putting Club, now known as the Himalayas. At the time, it was considered improper for women to lift their arms above shoulder height, so putting was the only appropriate form of golf for them.
Scottish judge Lord Moncrieff suggested that women should drive the ball no further than 70 or 80 yards, stating that “the posture and gestures required for a full swing are not particularly graceful when the player is clad in female dress”.
A year after the St Andrews Ladies Putting Club was formed, women first played on the links at Westward Ho! – but only if accompanied by gentlemen caddies.
Almost all prestigious golf courses did not allow women at some point in their history.
Royal Liverpool’s club secretary, in 1946, wrote: “No women have never entered the clubhouse and, praise God, no women never will.”
You may think this history is irrelevant. Indeed, all this is so outdated that it would never affect golfers today.
But, as a woman in golf, I can tell you it does.
I played golf for my county before I could represent my club. The local union had banned girls from playing in interclub junior teams. When challenged, the union president stood up to speak. “Michelle Wie has proven women aren’t good enough to compete with men.” Wie’s so-called proof? She had shot 68. At the age of 14. In a PGA Tour event.
Complaints were made and, eventually, the decision was overruled. Sort of. Girls could not make up more than 50 per cent of any team. They didn’t want to take opportunities away from the boys.
It was also considered “unsafe” for them. After all, I could accuse them of anything. One hundred and forty-four years after the notion in North Devon, I was required to be chaperoned around the course to compete with the boys.
I quickly realised just how strong the perceptions were that women couldn’t play golf. Perhaps it should be a complement when people praise my swing. Perhaps men shouldn’t be so surprised that women can excel in sport.
Boys in the other teams were ridiculed for being beaten by a girl – though that stopped once I started beating them all.
Just how bad is the stigma of losing to a girl? Bad enough that boys would go to the effort of walking the whole course ahead of matches to put the red tees behind the whites.
As I get older, the challenges are different. Why are people so surprised that women want to play golf at the weekend? If I want to play in a major board competition, I must race to the course from an eight-hour working day because Tuesday and Thursday are ladies competition days. Will I finish before it gets dark? Do I play my best golf? Of course not. Would you? And I certainly don’t feel part of an inclusive club.
I should footnote here that women can play in some Saturday competitions at my club, but not in weeks when men’s board competitions are being played. Women’s board competitions are also never played at the weekend because this suits the generation of women who currently play. Some accommodations have been made for “women that work” – a tiny percentage of society, according to those in charge – but more needs to be done.
I have developed a thick skin over the years, though it’s been tested extensively. There are only so many times I can sit and listen to men tell me I am only a good golfer because I play off the forward tees, telling me I should be at home in the kitchen, or coaching me around the course regardless of their lack of ability.
Women pay like any other member, but there are still different rules for when we can play and how we are treated. No wonder women want to join women-only clubs, they are some of the few places they actually get what they pay for. They have unrestricted access to the course without the stigma and sexism you get at other clubs.
Things are changing – but not anywhere near the pace they should be. So apologies if I am not as happy about the improvements as you think I should be.
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