By Mike Dougherty
Metropolitan Golf Association officials meet with representatives from member clubs on a regular basis. For the past six years, a singular topic of conversation has dominated those sit-downs.
“We talk a lot about the different ways to increase membership,” MGA executive director Jay Mottola said. “It’s probably 80 percent of the conversation. And it always gravitates toward making the clubs more attractive to women.”
It’s a target audience every course in the Lower Hudson Valley is courting.
Less than 25 years ago, private clubs nationwide had rules that limited access to women. Most of those restrictions are gone, and women serve as club presidents at Scarsdale, Willow Ridge in Harrison and Brooklawn in Fairfield, Connecticut.
The game will only grow if more women get involved. National Golf Foundation research found that rounds played last year dropped to 462 million, the lowest since 1995. There were 157 courses shuttered nationwide. An estimated 650,000 men walked away from the game.
The one bright spot in all of the gloom: 260,000 women took up golf in 2013.
Newcomers often are reluctant to jump in. Despite recent efforts to get more women on the course, men dominate the golfing population 4 to 1. The sport is expensive, and it’s not easy to learn the game without professional instruction.
“I do think many women are still reluctant,” said Debbie Doniger, the nationally ranked director of instruction at GlenArbor Golf Club in Bedford. “It’s like going to an exercise class where everybody knows everybody and they all know the routines. It can be intimidating.”
Even the women who have played for years contribute to the problem. Tolerance for novices can be fleeting.
The approach is changing, though.
“I think you buffer all that with a good staff that makes all beginners feel welcome,” Doniger said. “Once newcomers are willing to take the first step, it doesn’t take long to get past all of the negative perceptions and find a welcoming atmosphere.”
There is a push to make golf a family activity, too. Many parents of school-aged children no longer are willing to spend five or six hours away from family in order to squeeze 18 holes into a busy weekend schedule. However, if everyone is playing and staying at the club for dinner, that’s a game-changer.
Engaging new players is going to be a focus of the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship when the LPGA Tour’s newest major tournament comes to Westchester Country Club in June. It’s unclear how much of an impact one event will have, and it’s really just a jump-start.
“I think growing the game is done at the grassroots level,” said Doniger, who is a Class A LPGA instructor. “We are the ones who have to hook everybody in. The LPGA and PGA of America club professionals do a really good job with that.”