Growing The Game

How the four women behind Grueter Golf are fighting the game's intimidation problem … and winning

July 10, 2019

“Are you guys here for the Grueter Golf Event?”

On a Saturday morning in New York City, a young woman clad in a USA Ryder Cup team jacket approached a group of 10 in the middle of an already crowded coffee shop. Spotting the pile of golf bags they were huddled around as if it were a campfire, her suspicion was confirmed. Eleven women with golf bags in Manhattan is rare, but even more of an anomaly is what brought them there in the first place.

Kiki Grueter, Erin Donnelly, Jennifer Corcoran and Haley Hillesland have been friends since their first week of college, but golf didn’t enter the picture until three years ago, when they were already out of school.

“We were on a trip to Cape Cod. It was cloudy that day and we didn’t want to go to the beach, so we decided to play golf. We were surprised at how fun it was,” Hillesland said. With a five-year reunion on the horizon, the girls thought it would be funny to create a new Instagram account for Kiki, naming it “Grueter Golf” and strictly posting photos of her on the course. “It was kind of a joke,” Corcoran said, “Like ‘Wow, that Kiki Grueter! It looks like she’s really into golf now!’ ”

The golf photos might have been began as a joke, but it sparked genuine interest among their group of friends. “People started asking to play with Kiki and us,” Donnelly said.

Their first few meet-ups consisted of 13 girls, and as word spread, the number grew. “We were all Venmoing each other. Even when it was on a smaller scale, it was like, ‘OK, how are we paying for this?’ ” Grueter said. “We knew we needed to create something more organized and wondered why nothing like this even existed.” Just like that, Grueter Golf evolved from Kiki’s tongue-in-cheek Instagram account into a women’s golf event business.

Jennifer Corcoran and Erin Donnelly greet the attendees of the first Grueter Golf event of the season.

Still in its formative stages, Grueter Golf remains a side project for the women at the heart of it, but it’s fueled by an ambitious mission. “To get more girls to play golf,” Donnelly says. Judging by the registration line at Grueter Golf’s first event of the season, they’re succeeding. But how are these four proudly novice golfers able to get 64 women to skip brunch in New York City and show up to a golf course on Saturday afternoon?

Related: 8 women on the obstacles they've faced in golf

“They make it look fun!” says Elyse Graf, 27, who was attending her first outing earlier this season. “Grueter Golf sends the message out that ‘If you’ve never picked up a club, that’s OK! Come out and join us.’ No one wants to be bad at something, so if you’re going to do it, you want to be around people who are OK with you being bad and learning, and it sounds like you can do that here.”

Grueter, 27; Donnelly, 27; Corcoran, 28; and Hillesland, 28, otherwise known as The Founding Foursome, are not seasoned players. “We’re all in the same boat,” Hillesland says. “We’re all very beginner. We’ve only been playing this game for a few years, so we aren’t good.” They rarely break 100, and it curiously works in their favor.

At a Grueter Golf event, skill levels range from women who have never held a club to former college golfers, but the fact that is was founded by women who are learning promotes a “we’re all in this together” vibe.

“We make it casual. Low expectations,” Hillesland says. Corcoran compares coming out to an event for the first time like going to a workout class you’ve never been to before.

“You feel just as stupid and out of shape, but it gets better! You feel more comfortable.” Knowing that you’re surrounded by others who are “out of shape” in a golf context lessens the intimidation factor, and the shared struggle of learning a difficult game together makes the process more enjoyable.

Not only are the Grueter Golf founders around the same skill level as the women they’re inviting to play, but they speak their language. At a time when golf social-media feeds are filled with videos of bikini-clad fitness models booming drives, Grueter Golf takes a more relatable approach. The swings aren’t perfect, and none of the women claim to be, either.

A first-time Grueter Golfer reacts after a great shot.

Whether it’s an email or Instagram, Grueter Golf embraces a tone that is irreverent and decidedly unpretentious. When signing up for an event, players fill out a survey that will help to pair them with women of similar skill level. Asked their favorite club, the choices are “driver, iron, putter...or night club.”

“It’s a young voice. I learned about Grueter Golf when Kiki was a guest on Erik Anders Lang’s podcast,” said Chelsea Calt, 27, a multiple-time Grueter Golf event attendee. “Then I did research on Instagram and saw that they weren’t just one, but a bunch of 20-something-year-old women! It wasn’t some 50-year-old guy behind a desk. It adds an element of trust.”

Kristen Fox, 33, the aforementioned woman in the Ryder Cup jacket, also found Grueter Golf via social media after their visor collaboration with trendy niche golf brand Sugarloaf Social Club.

“I play with my husband a lot, but when I came across this, I was like, ‘What is this? A women’s golf group?’ ” Kristen was just one of the 29 women who showed up to an event this spring completely solo in hopes of finding new friends to play golf with. Most of the new Grueter Golf attendees found the company through social media.

Perhaps the biggest key to Grueter Golf’s success is the robust schedule. In 2018, the group hosted four golf outings and five golf-themed parties. They also launched “Weekend Warm Up” in November, a monthly evening clinic with two golf instructors and room for 20 attendees hosted at Five Iron Golf, an indoor golf simulator sports bar. This gets the girls through to April, when the grass is green once more.

“It’s called a dense schedule of reinforcement,” says Leah Kuriyama, 27, a Grueter Golf attendee who works as a behavior specialist. “When you’re learning something new, especially something difficult like golf, you need a high level of reinforcement to be like, 'OK, I do like this, even though I’m learning.’ If you're new to golf, you’re chunking every single ball and everything just sucks. You need the fun aspects–getting out there and being social is the reinforcement element.”

From start to finish, a Grueter Golf event emphasizes fun regardless of the level of golf. The music is blasting, the drinks are flowing, and new friendships are forged. Participants leave feeling upbeat about their experience regardless of how the golf went. And the best part? There’s another event right around the corner.

“Margaritas and Mulligans,” a Jimmy Buffett-themed 122-golfer co-ed event, was held just two weeks after the season opener. “It started out as girls only, and guys would ask if they could come, and we would say, ‘Actually...no,’ ” Corcoran says. After a few months of women-only events, they eventually opened the doors to men.

“They were begging us to come! But now the ball is in our court. We're choosing to invite you. And we do it that way now, too, for inclusion. If you want to play but would feel more comfortable in a co-ed event, we have those too.”

So what should brands or companies in golf do if they truly want to grow the game?

“Hire us!” Corcoran says. And people are looking to Grueter Golf for pointers. In fact, Northwestern’s Kellogg Business School recruited them to plan and organize its outing for 136 golfers—more than half of them women. The Founding Foursome aren’t quitting their day jobs but don’t have plans of slowing down. “This is a job we do after work, before work, and sometimes during work, but don’t tell our bosses,” Corcoran says. “It’s a labor of love.”

For more on Grueter Golf, visit http://www.gruetergolf.com.