Golf as a Gender Study

I’ve said I don’t want to use my platform to regurgitate statistics and studies done about gender; I’ll leave that to the professional sociologists, psychologists, and researchers who are the experts and make that their passion.  But throughout my career I have always tried to relate my work back to real life in the hopes of drawing a simple parallel without the technical noise.  

Forgive my adult-life examples here, but I think the observations are relevant and I promise I will connect the dots.

About two years ago, I built a home in South Carolina in a residential community where the average age is ~52 and I would guess ~90% is married.  At the time, I was 36 and single (I’m still single!).  An avid golfer (though my index doesn’t necessarily indicate that I’m a good golfer), I was excited to join the golf club and finally have my own membership, to not just be America’s Guest.  What I did not necessarily think about was – “who am I going to play golf with?”  I didn’t know anyone here and I was only in town for quick weekends and periodic vacations, often importing friends from NYC or family as guests.  

Fast forward two years and I get asked by friends who are visiting or neighbors I’ve met - “how do you know so many people?”  The answer?  Golf.  I’m not saying this because I’m an amazing golfer and people are dying to play with me.  I say this as a comment on a trend that I’m sure transcends the gates of this community.  My club has organized women’s days.  Thursday afternoons is a casual “Nine & Wine”, usually a scramble or some sort of game format, followed by organized appetizers, cocktails, and prizes for the winners.  Tuesday morning is 18 holes, followed by an informal lunch for whoever can and wants to stay.  In each case, you sign up as an individual and the pro shop places you in groups with balanced handicaps.  As such, over the course of the last year where I have been lucky enough to spend much of my time in this community, I have gotten to know a lot of women (some are amazing golfers, twice I found myself playing with women who had never actually been on our course before).  Today at 38, I am basically 15 years younger than most other women, and 15 years older than most of their children.  In some cases, that differential is smaller.  In all cases, it doesn’t matter.  We have commonality that we enjoy golf, and our beautiful community.  

Over the months, I’ve heard our golf pros compliment us women on how supportive we are of the programming.  They are thrilled with the turnout to the weekly events, in many cases having waitlists for tee times, and also adding a clinic to the Thursday afternoon option with a rotating weekly topic.  This in itself is fostering connections between women and helping advance their interest in the sport, offering a “safe” environment where they can meet others at a similar playing level.  More importantly, it allows women to hone their skills without attempting to learn while playing with critical and impatient husbands.  

On that note, my parents have a classic story.  Married for 48 years, they are the epitome of the perfect couple.  Yet when my mom was picking up golf, she struggled with the sport.  After one dangerous episode where she intentionally whacked my father in the leg with her 3 wood, they each realized it would be better for her golf game and for their marriage if she took lessons from a pro and played with the women.  Over the coming years, she played weekly with ladies, she grew her confidence, and then, she began to enjoy playing with my dad.  A coach by nature, to this day, he still can’t help himself from sharing tips or critiques with those he’s playing with.  I’ve noticed my mom would rather take feedback from me, than him.  Is that because I’m a woman?  Maybe, but more likely because I’m not her husband.

The golf pros also comment on how they have tried weekly programming for the men, but how inevitably, it fails.  That instead of allowing the pro shop to pair them up, they prefer to stick to their desired groups.  That if the pro shop blocked out Saturdays from 9-11 famor men’s tee times, what would happen is groups of men would tee off at 8:40, 8:50.  They just did not embrace the idea of playing with different partners - particularly those who may not be of a similar skill level - and thus, closing the door to meeting new people and having new experiences.  

I recall a conversation with a neighbor who had just relocated to my community with her husband.  Her first week as a resident, she signed up for ladies golf.  Within weeks, she knew so many people.  And she was quick to say how welcome she felt, how happy she was to have met so many kind neighbors.  And yet she mentioned how her husband has struggled to not only meet people, but to find men with whom to play golf.  That he wished there was something like the women had, but for men.  

Hands down, my favorite women’s event at my firm was our golf outing.  I spent countless hours planning every detail of it, but I found it to be one of the most personally rewarding and fun days of the year.  Unlike most men’s outings and even some other firms’ women’s events, which were 18 holes and offered prizes for things such as longest drive and closest to the tee, ours was only 9 holes and we offered a clinic for beginners.  Over the years, we found more and more women signing up to play vs taking the clinic.  And with each passing year, the entire event grew in size and scale.  I looked forward to it more and more.  

One year, I played in the client golf outing run by my business (the women’s event was for clients across the entire firm).  Now, at this stage of my career, I was clearing comfortable being the only female on the desk, at the dinner table, around the conference table, and yes, in a foursome.  As I’ve said before, I’m an adequate golfer, but I’m not amazing.  That day is memorable for me for two reasons.  One, I think that was the day I realized no woman should EVER feel she is not able to golf with men.  The guys in my foursome although fun, were HORRIBLE.  We were supposed to be keeping our own score and playing our own ball.  But inevitably, what happened was we would all tee off, the guys would scatter, collect their balls (if they were lucky to find them) and proceed to drop them where my tee shot had landed.  I earned the nickname “Phairway Philbin” that day.  It was obvious to me that some men don’t have egos, and aren’t afraid to say yes to the golf invite, even though one of them literally had to stop at a store on the way to the course to buy a collared shirt.  A woman, I would bet, would have sorted out the outfit thing well in advance.  But she also may not have said yes if she didn’t think she was good enough to join.    

The second thing that happened that day was at the dinner following the outing, awards were given.  When it was announced that the winner of the longest drive competition was Megan Philbin, the room wasn’t sure what to do.  There were quips such as “but she hit from the ladies tee!” but mostly there was an impressed and even humbled crowd.  Even with a former NFL player in the group, my winning that day proved that you don’t always have to have the biggest muscles or have male anatomy to prove that consistent and down the middle trumps erratic and wide, any day.  

As I said earlier, I’m sure there is scientific research that explains some of these casual observations.  But I mention them to draw parallels to what I also noticed throughout my career.  That women embrace meeting new people, they support other women regardless of ability or title, and they offer to help by sharing experiences and making introductions.  Is there a reason golf is a common thread here in my personal and professional life?  I am a competitive person, and I enjoy trying to get better at what is admittedly a ridiculously frustrating activity.  But I’ve found it is also a great way to spend a beautiful day meeting new people and building connections – especially when it means a day out of the office.  

I choose not waste time pondering the question “why don’t men do this?” or trying to figure out how to change male behavior.  Instead, I urge women reading this, or male employers or managers, acknowledge it, accept it, and use it to your advantage.  

You just won’t find me playing in the rain.  That’s why golf courses have bars. 

Megan Philbin