Isabel Baldwin, like many female golfers, disappeared from the game in her teens as opportunities became increasingly slim. Now she's back and fighting the good fight one small step at a time
Through my childhood and into my teens I struggled being one of the few, and often only, junior girl members at my club before giving up the game altogether. Now in my early 20s I’ve rediscovered my love of the game and rejoined as a full member. But I blame myself for letting golf slip away from me and for not persevering against the obstacles faced by female golfers.
I know I shouldn’t be so hard on myself. It’s an uphill battle simply to be a girl and swing a club.
Golf has a problem attracting women, particularly young girls. That’s no secret. The first hurdle golf faces in bringing girls to the fore is to defeat the cultural stigma society has towards gender in sport. Golf is not popular among teenage girls due to many reasons beyond its control, but, with its own self-perpetuating image of being an outdated, unfashionable, male-dominated sport, it does itself little favours.
As a teenager I was embarrassed to tell my friends at my all-girls school that I was a golfer.
While most of my friends know who Tiger Woods is, they have never heard of Annika Sorenstam, Paula Creamer, or Laura Davies – the athletes I most admired growing up – because golf didn’t, and still doesn’t, do its female professionals any justice. You only have to look at the responses to Mel Reid’s tweet calling for more female representation at recent charity events to understand this.
If golf used the platforms at its disposal to demonstrate the talent of female golfers and awarded equal prominence and recognition to female professionals in tournaments, it would create icons to entice young girls to the sport.
With many clubs in the UK suffering from declining membership and financial challenges in the post-pandemic world, the need to recruit young blood has never been more vital. But the atmosphere golf has created for young female golfers can quickly put them off.
At the age of 13, I was finally joined by other girls at my club and, thanks to the efforts of an enthusiastic and encouraging junior organiser, for about a year we had a grand total of five girls. They soon fell away and I was back to being a lone ranger.
Golf is a sport built on hallowed traditions and rules, but accompanied by a reputation for being too white, too old, too middle class, and too male.
It was my greatest source of intimidation when I was starting out. It often felt like I was being treated with suspicion, like they were waiting for me to do something wrong so they could pounce and put me in my place. Dramatic? Possibly. But I was a 12-year-old girl playing on her own. Even now, as the only female member under 30, I feel the occasional glare.
And it wasn’t just the men. I remember certain ladies being just as discouraging. Why aren’t those who have been through their own fight for equality and right to play not willing to support the next generation going through the same thing?
Junior girl members still can’t play in the women’s board prize competitions and win, nor can they play on the women’s teams in matches against other clubs no matter how good they are.
When I first started out, I greatly admired the only other girl at the club. Six years my senior, she was a single-figure handicapper. But despite scoring competition-winning rounds she was denied the actual victory, and despite having a lower handicap than the entire ladies section she was denied a spot in the teams.
Witnessing this felt like I was defeated before I even got going. If a single-figure handicapper was facing obstacles, how could I, a beginner, ever stand a chance?
It was apparent junior girls weren’t truly accepted by the ladies, but we certainly weren’t welcomed by the junior boys either. So we didn’t really have a section to fit into, yet there weren’t enough of us to develop our own. Consequently, it felt that girls didn’t belong in golf.
The boys had safety in numbers to play, make mistakes, and learn from them. I never had the support system or the confidence to venture out onto the course.
I rarely played with the boys or in the junior competitions as, curiously, they never thought to ask me. And when I did they made their dislike of having to play with me quite clear.
These days at my club most dusty old cliches have been smashed out of bounds. Women are now allowed in the clubhouse, and we’re even allowed past the line that once demarcated the snooker area in the bar. Imagine being told you couldn’t go in a particular part of a room because of the body you were born in.
Only in the past few years have women been allowed to play on a sacred Saturday, traditionally the men’s day. It took years of protest and persuasion to be finally given the right. It is seemingly unfathomable to certain people that a woman could also have a life that meant they only had time to play at the weekend.
But of course, we still have to play by their rules. Only 20 female golfers are awarded the privilege of a Saturday membership. We must play off the same tees, score index, and par, and we don’t receive any courtesy shots. I’m all for equality but the reality is tried and tested criticisms of playing too slowly and barely being able to reach the fairways with our drives.
What aspiring young female golfer sees their senior peers being treated so disparagingly and feels encouraged to continue through the struggle of being a junior golfer?
This time I will persevere, though. Because I know if women like me don’t continue to fight then it will never change. And we risk losing an entire generation to other sports.
- Isabel Baldwin is a freelance journalist and can be contacted via Twitter
Now listen to the NCG Podcast episode breaking down the worn-out agenda against women’s golf:
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