Ask a guy what he thinks about women playing golf, and unless he's a knuckle-dragger of the first order, chances are you'll get an answer like, "OK with me," or, "Fine, as long as they don't slow us down." Those are the public responses, anyway. But what do men really think about women playing golf? And more important, how do they treat women they encounter on golf courses? Are they welcoming? Unwelcoming? Somewhere in between?
LPGA Tour player Kim Hall and I went undercover to find out. Armed with beginners' golf clubs, pro-quality clubs, several boxes of wardrobe changes and a makeup artist, we met in Chicago for three days and five rounds of golf. We didn't identify ourselves as a magazine writer and a golf pro. Indeed, we didn't acknowledge even knowing each other. We were just a pair of singles looking for a game.
At each course we visited, Kim portrayed a different golfer. At two she pretended to be a beginner who could barely break 120. At one she was a mid-90s shooter. Twice she played her regular game--that is, like a professional. She also changed her looks, as you can see in the accompanying photos. For one round she was made up to look as frumpy and unattractive as possible. Another time she wore a tight skirt, lipstick and stylish golf shoes. And so on. (I was the same middle-age 11-handicapper everywhere we went. Story of my life.)
We make no claims this was a scientific experiment. We played only five courses, not 500. The variables were nearly infinite, from the types of courses to the time of day to the guys we were paired with. Yet it was a revealing experience.
I knew, going into this, that some guys would rather not play golf with women, but in Chicago I saw firsthand how brazen they can be about it. More than once, Kim and I encountered men who deliberately sped away from a woman to avoid playing golf with her.
This is their right, I suppose. But it's also rude. And shameful. Can we really wonder why golf is struggling to attract women when they get this kind of treatment?
It's not as if Kim got the brushoff from everyone. Many players and golf-course staffers went out of their way to accommodate her. Yet she was always--unmistakably--an outsider. As she entered the clubhouse at one course, the pro welcomed her by saying, "You must be Kimberly--we've been waiting for you!" He was just being friendly, but it was also a reminder she was an oddity; there were no other women on his tee sheet that afternoon, so this had to be her.
No matter how Kim dressed or how she swung her clubs, guys generally warmed to her when they realized she wasn't going to play slowly. Kim, who grew up in San Antonio and started playing golf 25 years ago, at 5, has known this for decades. "In the grand scheme, that's the only important thing to men golfers: Can you keep moving?" she says. "Most men don't really care about anything else."
The one exception was when Kim was dolled up as the girliest character, the one we called Damsel in Distress. Then, nothing she did seemed to bother anyone. "I totally could do no wrong" as that character, she says. "I could have spent 20 minutes in the bathroom at the turn and gotten away with it."
Why did she think that was? "Guys just go googly over a pretty lady," she says. "It's innate. And it's not limited to golf courses. It happens in bars and other public places, too. Men want to impress that woman. It's not 'courting' exactly... but it kind of is."
Read highlights of our experiment, round by round ⇒
PODCAST: Pete Finch talks with GolfDigest.com editor Sam Weinman about his undercover story on women in golf in the March issue of Golf Digest.