EDITOR'S NOTE: This story first appeared in the March 2012 issue of Golf Digest.
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.
Good municipal course - Kim's character // Beginning golfer, Ugly Duckling look
Kim arrived a few minutes before me and checked in, heading for the range. When I got there, I asked the assistant pro if the other people in my group would be walking or riding. "There's only one here so far, and they're walking," he said.
His choice of words—"they're walking"—seemed to have an obvious purpose: He didn't want to identify my partner as a woman.
A morning downpour had caused a delay, and several groups--all male--were milling around by the practice green. Though Kim and I had been paired with another twosome, the staff seemed determined not to send us out with anybody else. Each of us separately asked club personnel to be paired with another twosome when the rain delay lifted, but they insisted we go out as a pair.
No doubt they'd seen her warming up. Over at the range, Kim was dutifully swatting at balls, in character as a beginner, and not making good contact. Most of her swings were resulting in low liners or whiffs. Her schlubby outfit wasn't adding much to her marketability. I walked over to the starter and pretended to be unhappy about my pairing. "Did you get a load of who I'm with?" I asked.
"Maybe you can help her a little," he suggested. "A lot of women don't like that, though." He laughed. "Just be aware of where you're standing when she hits."
The golf-course staff "seemed to feel sorry for me," Kim told me later. "There was definitely a 'poor you' vibe. When I asked the assistant about where I could find some food, he didn't just point. He came out from behind the counter and walked me around the corner to the restaurant to show me where it was."
Not everyone was so friendly. Reaching one front-nine hole with a long forced carry, we both marched across a bridge toward the back tees, where I would hit. A ranger saw us and came racing forward in his cart. "She has to hit from there!" he hollered, gesturing toward the red tees. His voice was significantly louder than it needed to be. "She can't hit from here! She won't get over that ravine!"
"I know," Kim replied softly, doing a 180 and heading back across the bridge.
• • •
High-end daily-fee course - Kim's character // Golf-pro skills, Tomboy look
'Walking or riding, Miss Hall?" asked the assistant pro as Kim checked in.
"Whatever the others in my group are doing," she answered.
The pro spotted one of Kim's playing partners standing directly behind her, a gray-haired man in his late 60s or early 70s. "Which is it, Mr. Williams?"
"I'll be riding," he said grumpily.
"OK, I'll ride, too," Kim said.
After she'd finished paying, Williams and his friend signed in, then hustled from the golf shop and headed for the first hole. Finding it open, they teed off and roared down the fairway before Kim and I could get there to join them. So we began our round as a twosome on a crowded course. For the first three holes, we waited for Williams and his friend on every shot. Finally, at the fourth tee, they offered to let us through.
"Isn't the course kind of jammed up?" I asked.
"Would it be OK if we just joined you?" Kim asked.
Pause. "Yeah," Williams replied, clearly not thrilled about it. "All right."
Cranky as they seemed, the guys quickly became friendly once they watched Kim hit from the same tees they were playing. "Whooo!" said Williams' buddy after her first tee shot. "Are you available for mixed doubles?"
She reached the green in two and two-putted for par. By the next tee, the guys were full of questions. "Did you play college golf?" (Answer: Stanford.) "Where are you from?" "You live in Las Vegas? What's it like to live there?"
As we neared the end of our round, with Kim out of earshot, I approached the duo and asked why they had been so determined to rush off ahead of us. They seemed a little taken aback. "We weren't trying to get away from you," Williams insisted. "We just saw the first tee was open, so we went."
Kim laughed when I relayed their response. "They knew I was in their group, and they just dashed off," she said. It was the first time she could recall that happening to her. Had it occurred in "real life," I wondered, would she avoid returning to the course?
"No, I just thought, OK, he's a jerk, and let it go," she said. "Everyone else there was nice. Maybe this guy has a problem with women."
• • •
Privately owned daily-fee course -Kim's character // Beginning golfer, Damsel in Distress look
I got to the course before Kim this time. The golf-shop staffers were matter-of-fact in that big-city way, brusque and maybe even borderline rude. I asked one of them where to find the first tee. "Behind the building," he answered without looking up or gesturing.
Kim's experience was altogether different. When she rolled in, an explosion of curly blond hair, bright-red nails and lipstick, the guys snapped to attention. The golf-shop staff suddenly became experts in small talk, asking where she was from, telling her how to find the starter's shed, explaining the course's rain-check policy, and wishing her a great round.
I was down at the first tee meeting the twosome we'd been paired with when Kim came out of the shop. The starter saw her first, from about 150 yards away. "Hey, here comes your fourth," he said. "You guys mind?" He emitted a low whistle. "I don't think so! I don't think you guys are gonna mind!" We turned to look at Kim, and I dutifully laughed along with the other guys.
Kim was one of only two women we saw at the course that day, and certainly she was the more made-up. Guys in other foursomes openly stared at her as we passed.
Kim played as a beginner, and because of that we were moving slowly. By the fifth tee, there was a hole and a half open ahead of us, and I saw a ranger approaching in a cart. I was certain he was going to tell us to get a move on. But no. It turns out the ranger had heard from the starter that Kim might be low on tees, so he went to his golf bag and found some extras. "Here," the ranger said holding out a handful for her. "I heard you might need these."
The men we played with, buddies in their late 30s, were no less friendly than the ranger. They complimented Kim on her "braveness" for coming out to play as a single female and offered encouraging words when she failed to get her ball airborne or remained stuck in a bunker. On a couple of occasions I tried to bait them into complaining about her--"Boy, she's pretty bad," I said when she could not hear us--but they didn't bite. Once, I commented that I needed a bathroom break and didn't feel comfortable going behind a tree with her in our group. They laughed and agreed, and that was the end of it.
"I felt great!" Kim said after the round. "Everyone treated me so nicely. But the thing is, this is 2011. To get the starter to be nice, to have everyone in the golf shop be so sweet, do you have to be all done up in curls and makeup and false eyelashes? Why don't all women get that treatment?"
• • •
Resort course - Kim's character // Decent player, Average Jane look
Rain delays again scrambled the tee sheet at this course, so we had to begin our round as a twosome. We caught up with a pair of men in their mid-30s at the fourth tee. Kim asked if we could join them. "We were kind of hoping to play fast," one muttered, ignoring the group in the fairway right in front of them.
"Doesn't look like you're going anywhere," I said. They let us join them.
Kim, carding mostly bogeys and doubles, was keeping a brisk pace for this round. "She's pretty good, huh?" I said to Jim, the more hurried of our two new friends.
"She's consistent," he said, not sounding very impressed. In their rush, the guys sped past the forward tee on the next hole, before Kim could hit. "Average Jane goes pretty unnoticed," she said.
A few holes later, Kim tried to engage the guys in conversation. There was a brief back-and-forth about careers and hometowns. When Kim described herself as "a mom," the conversation ended. That was the last question they asked her. (She is, in fact, the mother of a 1-year-old daughter and is on leave from the LPGA Tour, where she played for four years and earned more than $350,000.)
On the back nine, the crowd thinned out and we began playing even faster, trying to finish all 18 before sundown. When we putted out on the last hole, in near darkness, we all shook hands, and Jim thanked us for hurrying.
"They really weren't interested in me at all," Kim said afterward. "I was just kind of there. It's weird, that we couldn't have a conversation."
• • •
High-end daily-fee course - Kim's character // Golf-pro skills, Golf-pro look
For the second time in three days, Kim and I arrived at the first tee on time only to find the men we'd been paired with had begun without us. Because the course was busy, we caught up with the two mid-60s golfers in a matter of minutes.
Now, there was no question Kim looked like a golfer. Beyond her outfit, she was playing the same clubs she uses on tour. Still, there was an awkward silence when we rolled up behind the runaway golfers on the tee box.
"Mind if we come along with you?" asked Kim, finally.
"Yeah..." one of them responded. "OK."
Kim stepped to the blue tees, which they were playing, and smacked her drive down the center. The guys had no obvious reaction, but after a couple of holes, one of them approached her and said, "So where did you play golf on a scholarship?"
It wasn't long before the beverage-cart girl drove up. We weren't thirsty, so we waved her off, but she wanted us to stop anyway. She leaned toward Kim. "The guys up ahead said there was a woman playing from the blue tees and doing really well," she said. "I just wanted to come out and say, 'Good for you!' "
By then the guys we were playing with--Bob and Ed--had figured out Kim was better than the average college golfer. "Did you ever think about going pro?" Bob asked.
"Actually, I am a pro," Kim said.
Now the guys were full of questions, and Kim obliged them with answers about life on tour, her favorite courses and, naturally, what Tiger Woods is really like. (She met him at a practice center, and he was nice to her.)
After our round, when Kim had departed, the guys said they'd enjoyed playing with us and were glad we'd joined them. "Just look at how she swings it," Bob said. "So smooth."
"I'm gonna Google her," said Ed.
I said it seemed like they were trying to get away from us when the round began.
"No!" they chorused. "Not at all."
That's not the way it looked to Kim. "You could tell they didn't want me to join them at first," she said. "There wasn't any question. But when they saw me play, it was like, Oh, she knows what she's doing. Now all of a sudden we were on the same wavelength."
• • •
Looking back on our experience, it's hard to know exactly why Kim got the cold shoulder so often. Slow play is doubtless a big part of it. In a lot of men's imaginations, there's no such thing as a speedy woman golfer.
This isn't something Kim has dealt with a lot in the past. Because she began playing so young and quickly got so good at it, she has seldom showed up at golf courses where people don't know her or weren't expecting her.
Over the years, though, she has played enough golf with men to know that some are uncomfortable socializing with women. That seemed to be the case when Kim was in her Average Jane character. She was plain-looking, not an especially great golfer, and a stay-at-home mom. The men we played with had plenty of questions for me. But with Kim, they seemed to conclude, "What is there to talk about?" and left her alone.
Some guys feel like women put a damper on things, Kim says. "They want their 'boy time.' They feel like they can't smoke or curse and stuff if a lady's in the group. I play with my dad and his friends all the time, and they still apologize to me if they curse or they burp or whatever. Come on. I'm 30 years old. That doesn't bother me."
Shouldn't men be entitled to "boy time"? Of course we should. And the truth is, we'll often find it at a public golf course. But that doesn't excuse the behavior Kim and I encountered. It's not 1950 anymore. Unless you book your tee time for a foursome, there's a chance you'll get paired with other players and--the horror!--one or more of them might be female.
You can fight it, as we saw guys do in Chicago. Or you can take the high road and embrace it. Because, as Kim pointed out, you never know who that woman golfer might be. "You might get someone who turns out to be really interesting to you--like an investment manager or a CEO. Or maybe a golf pro."