Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

The Rise of Women’s Golf During a Global Crisis

Posted on 1 February 2021 by Sarah Wilmore

Before the pandemic struck, England Girls team member Lottie Woad had been storming the women’s golf amateur circuit. But suddenly golf courses shut during the first national lockdown, and when the sport returned, no one knew what to expect.

Women’s golf had been seeing its crowds grow in both the amateur and professional games. More and more women’s golf was appearing on Sky and thanks to England Golf’s Girls Golf Rocks campaign, the number of girls taking up the game was skyrocketing.

Hannah Bowen playing golf. Credit: Twm Bayliss (@twmosbaylissphotography)

However, when courses reopened in May, the landscape was gloomy. Despite the increases in participation, the Ladies European Tour had been struggling financially and, at times, was allegedly dangerously close to going bust. This posed a serious threat to the future careers of rising stars, and Woad was no exception.

In January last year, a conference near London outlined a new support package with the LPGA, European Tour and R&A. However, coming out of lockdown, the men’s European Tour had announced their comeback while the women didn’t know if they’d play another tournament in 2020.

But then, a rose burst through the thorns as Justin Rose and wife Kate got behind Liz Young and launched the Rose Ladies Series. The initiative provided a string of events for female British professionals throughout June and July.

The prize money wasn’t substantial, with approximately £5,000 awarded for the winner of an event. However, the series provided much-needed exposure for Ladies European Tour and LET Access Series players. Sky broadcast most of the events, and women’s golf was blossoming.

“I’ve definitely had to adapt, but I don’t think it’s affected my development”

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Woad, 17, played in the first Rose Ladies Series event and the three-day Grand Final which finished in flames when a wildfire cascaded over Wentworth.

Woad said: “It was really good as I learnt lots of things from the pros which have helped develop my game. It could also help me see what areas of my game were as good as theirs and what I could improve in order to get to their level.”

Playing off a handicap of +5.4, Woad has continued to post strong results despite the pandemic. Her highlights from last season include reaching the quarterfinals of the English Women’s Amateur Championship and winning the Frilford Heath Ladies Scratch Salver.

On lockdown, and losing the ability to practise on the course, she said: “I’ve definitely had to adapt, but I don’t think it’s affected my development as it was a great opportunity to work on other things that I wouldn’t normally be able to.

“It definitely allowed me to be even more excited to compete in the competitions we had due to the long wait, this helped me perform really well, and I can’t wait to compete this year.

“I would say the biggest impact is the cancelling of competitions – as many have already been cancelled for 2021. The travel restrictions are making it harder to get to the international events due to lack of flights and the need for Covid tests – so you have to adapt your tournament schedule a lot!”

England Golf has also been supportive, providing online group calls and one-to-ones plus Q&A sessions with professional golfers such as Matt Wallace, who came through the England Golf performance squads.

“The young women and girls are showing so much resilience”

England Golf Women’s Performance Manager, Rebecca Hembrough, said the lockdown allowed players to focus on strength and conditioning, nutrition, and course management.

Organisers had to cancel many women’s amateur events last year, but some of the England Golf Championships still went ahead and players needed to be ready.

Hembrough said: “The Championships team at England Golf salvaged the season for the elite players in July and August by delivering a run of national championships. Everyone was so thankful for that.”

She added: “The young women and girls are showing so much resilience and are making the most of the situations they’re in, and everyone involved in the programme can’t wait to get going with the 2021 season once it’s safe to do so.”

“They were all a great experience and really brought ladies golf together as one”

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Of the Rose Ladies Series, WPGA Tour player and coach Sarah Smith said: “This was fantastic, especially when you’re on the putting green with huge names such as Georgia Hall! They were all a great experience and really brought ladies golf together as one.”

She also witnessed her coaching business boom after the first lockdown, as people were keen to try one of the few activities allowed to resume.

Smith said: “We put on many programmes for specifically beginners golf and, even though advertised for both male and female golfers, 80% were usually women signing up with their friend.”

Consequently, Saffron Walden Golf Club, where Smith teaches, has launched an academy for 2021, and female golfers have snapped up the first 15 of 20 spaces.

The academy provides monthly coaching sessions and allows the women to play in the afternoons after work. These working women can now surpass the usual barriers to participation, as ladies’ competitions are traditionally held midweek.

“I’m unsure how many tournaments I will be able to actually afford to enter this year”

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However, the story has been quite different for Welsh teaching and playing professional Hannah Bowen, 24, who also competed in the Rose Ladies Series.

Bowen is frustrated that courses keep closing and has had to cancel lessons, losing a lot of income. The government support is only just helping to cover the rent, meaning there’s less money available for her golf.

She said: “In terms of playing, I feel underprepared, I am anxious and nervous about getting out and playing again.

“I’m unsure how many tournaments I will be able to actually afford to enter this year. Due to the loss of work over the past year, I would be looking at potentially not playing this year.

Bowen stressed that not everyone has the equipment and space to practise during the lockdown, creating unfair advantages when golf resumes.

She said: “I am demotivated at this moment as we have no clear-cut end. I feel helpless in terms of making any plans as we do not know what the year holds. I love playing, and by not being able to do so I’ll be honest with anyone and say that it has had a negative effect on my mental health.”

“We saw a well-deserved huge increase in interest in the women’s game”

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Sports Gazette contacted the Rose Ladies Series for comment. Molly Bullard, Tournament Coordinator, on behalf of Excel Sports Management said: “TV and media interest in the series helped promote women’s golf on new platforms and to new audiences, and we saw a well-deserved huge increase in interest in the women’s game.

“As the Covid19 Pandemic continues into 2021, and with it continued uncertainty, we are unfortunately unable at this stage to say what our plans are this year. We hope to revisit any future plans when it is safe and sensible to do so, and in line with supporting the Ladies European Tour schedule, once that is published.”

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In December, the Rose Ladies Series launched its Instagram page, suggesting that it will be an annual fixture. This can only boost women’s golf in the UK, and when international travel resumes, the series may see even more players from the Ladies European Tour competing.

While the pandemic certainly posed a risk for women’s golf, its rising popularity and support from male professionals show it can only continue to grow.