Tiffany Mack Fitzgerald worked diligently in corporate America for 15 years. She attended the conferences and late night networking events, introduced herself to the right people, and bought the power suit. She was doing all the things recommended by college professors and business leaders, and yet there still remained a distance between herself and her senior colleagues.
Then it started to become apparent to Fitzgerald that the missing link was golf. When a manager headed to the driving range on a Friday afternoon, most of Fitzgerald’s co-workers were ready to go, with clubs and shoes in the car. Fitzgerald, on the other hand, was dressed in heels and had never picked up a golf club in her life.
The confident and headstrong young lady, working at the male-dominated company John Deere, was frustrated. “I was kinda [sic] checking all the boxes,” she said. “No one ever told me to play golf.”
Fitzgerald came to realise the networking potential of golf, and for these reasons decided to buy some clubs and take lessons. A few years down the line she is the founder and Chief Executive of Black Girls Golf, a company which by its own definition, “exists to change the exclusive culture of golf by introducing women and minorities to golf and making them lifelong players.”
By bringing more female minorities into golf, Black Girls Golf has the potential to change the relationships between these women and their managers. Research conducted by the Center for Talent Innovation, a charitable organisation promoting diversity, found that senior company leaders only support or sponsor 11 percent of women of color.
Furthermore, the study reported that Africa-American women tend to believe that keeping their heads down and focusing on work will lead them to success. The study also found that women tend to overlook the extra avenues of networking available outside the office. This results in these women being routinely missed or ignored. But golf could offer a crucial way in.
Despite the decline in golf participation over the past decade, the sport remains front and centre in the business world. Networking, deal-making, pitching and socialising all continue to take place on many of America’s golf courses, despite only 7 percent of the country’s population playing the game. The Professional Golf Association (PGA) reported in 2014 that just over half of business people see golf as their most important networking activity. And they estimate that 90 percent of the Chief Executives of Fortune 500 companies play the game.
Former Wentworth Golf Club Chief Executive, Julian Small argues that a game of golf is an excellent judge of character. “When you do business with people you need to know more about them,” he said in an interview with The Economist magazine. For Mr Small, and many other business people, spending four hours on a golf course, and then a few more at the bar, allows you to spend more time with someone than at the average meeting.
Black Girls Golf aims to open up this lucrative part of business life to more people. The company provides clinics and events for golfers of all levels, but predominantly focusing on African American woman who have limited golfing experience. “Black Girls Golf doesn’t exclude any other women,” says Fitzgerald. “I just focus on black women because people do better when they’re comfortable and you’re more comfortable when you’re around people who are like you.”
She has found that by inviting women to learn to play in a relaxed environment, they are more likely to stick with golf. She runs her events on public courses specifically to avoid the stuffiness that can be felt at many private, member courses.
Fitzgerald has also seen that by making herself the face of Black Girls Golf she can help to break down some of the barriers that intimidate women. She is present at all of her events and she can rattle off numerous examples of running around golf courses looking for extra clubs or accompanying women out on the course. Women are intimidated she explains, “but when they see me and I don’t look like what they think it is I think it’s easier to connect.”
But despite these efforts Black Girls Golf and other organisations still face an uphill battle thanks, in part, to the sport’s complicated rules, expensive nature and traditional attitudes. “Golf courses aren’t very welcoming to new golfers,” says Fitzgerald. “And women are always going to be new to the sport.”
This sentiment is shared amongst businesswomen and students. “I have been told throughout my University career that I need to play golf if I want to go places in business,” says Emory senior, Allison Aghjayan. “I took lessons as a child but still feel extremely intimidated by the thought of playing in front of male colleagues. I just don’t think I’m good enough.”
The more traditional vestiges of the golf industry such as the PGA have recognized this problem but their attempts to address it have garnered little success. Women’s Golf Month, a campaign intended to encourage women to take up the game with cheap taster sessions, was introduced in 2005 but has since faded away.
The Ladies’ Professional Golf Association (LPGA) runs various programs including Clinics for Women that seeks to provide golf instruction and opportunity for businesswomen. But with clinics starting at $400 they are pricing many women out. “They’re running a business,” explains Emory head golf coach and PGA member John Sjoberg. The company need to make money in America, especially when most of the corporate investment available to them comes from overseas he said.
Other campaigns have faced problems converting interest into real results. In the United Kingdom the This Girl Golfs campaign from The National Club Golfer produced a modern, exciting video that attracted significant press attention. But the media campaign was not backed up with widely available clinics or events to turn the enthusiasm into golfers.
But women do find golf appealing. Fitzgerald receives around 500,000 impressions across her social media platforms every month, and Black Girls Golf is so popular that Fitzgerald has left the corporate world and now devotes her time to the company. Furthermore, a 2004 study by Catalyst recorded that almost half of women felt that ‘exclusion from informal networks’ was the main obstacle limiting their careers.
As well as coaching the Emory team, Sjoberg runs beginner golf lessons at Emory University and has noticed that lot of the women who take his class have the business potential at the forefront of their minds. Many of his students have worked internships where their male colleagues got days off to play golf. In the future they want to be included too. “The company golf outing happens and you’re volunteering at the check in table,” says Fitzgerald when asked about the experiences of her clients.
Despite their limited success so far, the golf industry knows it has to find a way to entice women into the game. The decline in participation over the past decade has hurt golf financially and women remain a severely untapped market. The professional services firm KPMG put together a study in 2015 that revealed that female participation remains ‘disappointing’ at only 25 percent in Europe. And according to Golf Datatech, a market research company for the golf industry, the number lies even lower at 2 percent in America.
Now, the sector is trying to sell golf to women as a business opportunity. In 2014 the PGA listed ‘It helps your career’ as the number one reason to take up the game. And golf travel website ‘World’s Best Golf Destinations’ recommends women take up the sport because, “in today’s competitive business environment women can’t afford NOT to play golf.”
It might appear like the networking opportunities in golf are being pushed by people wanting to make money from an under-represented demographic. But for Sjoberg it doesn’t really matter. “I think getting more people to play in any way possible is good for the game,” says Sjoberg. “Whether it’s an incentive from a business standpoint or a social standpoint.”
As for Fitzgerald and Black Girls Golf the aim is to help women to feel comfortable enough on the course so that they can take advantage of networking opportunities. She knows that women, and particularly minorities, simply need some extra encouragement in order to get there. ‘No one goes to a party uninvited,” said Fitzgerald when asked about her motivations to keep pushing Black Girls Golf. “I felt like black women needed an invitation.”