A Skirt Among Khakis: My struggle to navigate golf's gender gap
Golf has been a huge part of my life ever since my dad first took me to hit balls at the range when I was a little girl. It’s really all I’ve ever wanted to do, but the game hasn’t always embraced me in return. I remember the first time I was made to feel different. I was 18 and had earned a spot on the co-ed U.S. Junior World Cup team. We were set to compete against the Canadian Junior team in Scotland, and I was the only girl to qualify for either team. During our visit, our coach arranged for us to play the Old Course of St. Andrews and take a private tour of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club. I was young, but I understood the storied history of St. Andrews, and I was psyched. But this was 2000, and the R&A hadn’t yet admitted women. My dad, who accompanied me on the trip, was hopeful I’d be allowed to take the tour. But once in Scotland, our sponsor informed me I wasn’t allowed inside the R&A, even for a private tour. He said my dad could go, but I’d have to wait outside. Of course, my dad didn’t leave me alone. He instead tried to make the day as special as he could by taking me to see Old Tom Morris’ gravesite and some cool castles. I won all my matches that week and left Scotland feeling triumphant except for the lingering sting of being excluded. It turned out to be the first of many incidents I’d encounter in golf that left me doubting myself as an equal in the game.
I’m 36 now and run my own golf-instruction academy (Alison Curdt Golf). I love my job and appreciate everything golf has given me, but it has taken a long time—too long—to get to a good place in my life and career. When I started out, I was regularly passed up for job opportunities and paid less just for being female. Many clubs I’ve worked for or visited have male-only areas I’m not allowed into. Constantly being called a woman golfer instead of just a golfer will mess with your head a little bit.
When I decided to become a PGA of America teaching professional, I hoped that proving my value in golf knowledge and playing proficiency would earn me respect. Turns out, I also had to worry about being too good because some men couldn’t handle it. Early in my career, my male colleagues often hijacked my lessons. Students would call the golf shop, and if I didn’t answer the phone, the message wasn’t passed along. In other cases, whoever answered the phone would say I wasn’t available and offer to take my place. Or my boss would ask me to cover the golf shop during a time that I was busy teaching so that I couldn’t service my students. It was all difficult for me to process. I couldn’t believe being good at my job could hold me back as much as my own insecurities.
There were other instances where I felt marginalized. When I was working at a private club in Los Angeles, the director of golf and assistant golf professional—third in line behind me—got to take a private jet to go play Cypress Point, and I had to stay behind and run a tournament. It’s hard to stay positive in those moments. Also, at that time, I was the only golf professional on our staff playing at the professional level. I’d qualified for the LPGA Championship and had won tournaments in the Southern California section, as well as nationally through the LPGA Teaching and Club Pro division. I relished the opportunity to play a great course as much as my male co-workers.
I knew I was doing the right things in my career because of the national accolades I received, but I couldn’t get validation from my club’s management, let alone a bonus or raise. And it was disappointing to receive more compliments after I’d lost weight than when I became the youngest (woman or man) to earn PGA Master Professional status at age 29. Stuck and frustrated, I often coped with these issues with food, which only exacerbated the situation. When I wasn’t eating enough and got skinny, I was the target of sexist compliments. When I gained weight, the comments were more judgmental. When I was finally at a healthy weight with a great relationship with my body, I had a club member lecture me about snacking on some trail mix. I just wanted it to stop.
There are certainly golf clubs that have fantastic management where the culture is different and being a woman isn’t a factor. That’s not where I was early in my career. Looking back, I wish I had stood up for myself more, but I was worried I’d miss out on a promotion or raise. The threat of retribution is what silenced me. It’s a familiar dilemma for women: Confront unfair treatment in the workplace, or keep your head down and do your job. For a long time, I did the latter until I eventually found a way out.
In time, I’ve come to find my voice and confidence, but attempting to change the status quo in golf is a slow process. Raising awareness is important, and that’s why I wanted to share my experiences. The LPGA and USGA girls golf-education programs are doing some good things to change golf’s culture, starting with girls as young as age 6. It’s important to empower them so they know they can accomplish their goals even if they’re the only female in the golf shop or girl on the range.
At the same time, young boys need to be taught that a respect for the game includes respecting everyone in it, regardless of gender or race. Youth golf programs might benefit from less segregation so that the boys learn and experience the game alongside the girls. Building this kind of gender-positive culture can only help them grow more comfortable playing and working together.
I’ve been a PGA of America member for more than 12 years, but walking into a room of 200 khaki-and-blue-blazer-clad men still gives me anxiety. When I’m considering what to wear the night before, I always have to ask myself: “Is this skirt professional? Will the men perceive it as too sexy?” It’s a balance—wanting to look and feel good but wondering if an inch difference in a hemline will affect how I’m treated. But I’m going to keep showing up. Representation is important, and I do believe the golf industry’s acceptance and treatment of women is getting better.
As my own boss, I’m now able to celebrate my achievements and set my goals without fear of suppression. I found my way forward through embracing my outlier status, but forging your own path can’t be the only way. The culture of acceptance and mutual support needs work in golf from every angle.