In 2018 Golf Australia launched a strategy designed to return female participation in golf to the peak level it enjoyed in the 1970s.  In Part 1 of an analysis of Vision 2025 in Golf Victoria magazine, we examined why greater female engagement and cultural change had become so pressing.

This feature was awarded Best Reportage of Women’s Golf in the 2018 Australian Golf Media Annual Golf Media Awards.


The participation ratio of females to males in golf in the modern era peaked at 34% in 1970, some 48 years ago. It has declined steadily since and, in 2018, stands at just under 20%. The two obvious questions are: what happened, and why has it taken so long for this to be addressed?

The answers are both simple and complex. And require a trip back in time.

vision the case for change

1970 was a very interesting year in the world. The flight of the first Concord, the safe return of Apollo 13 after a space incident which coined the popular phrase, “Houston, we have a problem”, and widespread protests in the US against President Nixon’s widening of the Vietnam War, leading to the deaths of four students at Kent State University at the hands of the National Guard, were events of world interest. In Australia, John Gorton was Prime Minister and Henry Bolte was returned as Premier of Victoria. A loaf of bread was 21 cents, a stamp five cents and a copy of Sports Illustrated 15 cents.

In golf, the men’s Victorian Open was won by a young David Graham and the men’s Australian Open by Gary Player, the sixth of his record seven wins in the event. Neither the Victorian Open nor the Australian Open for women existed, though the male versions had been going for 70 years in the case of the Australian Open and 13 in the case of the Vic. Men’s golf was overseen by the Victorian Golf Association and women’s by the Victorian Ladies Golf Union.

Karrie Webb was still four years shy of birth in the same year as the first Women’s Australian Open. The formation of the Ladies European Tour (LET) was eight years away and the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA), while 20 years old, was still in a fledgling state. Back then there were only two women’s majors; now there are five.

In 1970, John Cain’s Equal Opportunity Act may have been 15 years in the future but unrest was already underway. The second wave of feminism (the first, from the 1830s to the early 1900s, centred on getting the vote) was born in the 1960s amidst a growing political instability over civil rights. Women supporting minority groups realised that their voices were not being heard and, led by people such as Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan, they began a significant push-back against the political, legal, social, economic, industrial and sexual repression by men which proliferated every layer of society.

the case for change women

In this pivotal year Germaine Greer published The Female Eunuch.

The issue of gender equality in sport was – and remains – a thorny one. Highly regarded sociologist Lois Bryson described sport in 1991 as “a powerful institution in Australian society which supports male domination because it was developed to do just that”. Elizabeth Broderick, the Sex Discrimination Commissioner between 2007-15 spoke of the “grass ceiling” to describe the barriers encountered by women wishing to participate or be employed in the sporting domain.

Even as broader society changed and sport moved from primarily volunteer-run organisations to professionally managed businesses, the games people played remained heavily biased towards men. Despite a number of government-driven initiatives, the number of horrifying examples of gender-based discriminatory practices still occurring says that there remains a lot of work to be done in this area.

The Greg Norman factor has been suggested as a critical reason why the growth of males playing golf increased at a much greater pace than females – from 200,000 to 394,000 males against only 102,000 to 104,000 females in the period from the mid-70s to mid-90s. Given Norman’s domination over a period from 1986 through to 1998, during which he reigned 331 weeks on and off as world number one, this makes a lot of sense, but it doesn’t explain it all – and it doesn’t explain why the female rate continued to drop after another star and role model in Webb appeared in the late 1990s.

After all, Webb has been argued by luminaries such as Peter Thomson to be the best golfer, male or female, that Australia has ever produced, winning her seven majors – as many as Norman and Thomson together – between 1999 and 2006 and remaining our top female golfer until 2015. No, there’s more to it.

For a start, Webb could only be subjectively described as the best player in the world at that time as the Rolex world rankings for women did not commence officially until 2006 – the year of Webb’s last major – compared to the introduction of the then Sony world rankings for men from 1986 – the year of Norman’s first.

The role of media and advertising in this cannot be ignored either. Although women’s golf, even at amateur level, was covered in newspapers in the latter part of the 21st century and both The Age and The Sun News Pictorial had female golfer writers in Peg McMahon and Di Gatehouse, there was much greater attention and column inches devoted to their male counterparts. Advertising, the same.

Of course, while we could charge decision-makers being overwhelmingly male for this, there were – and still are – commercial realities to face. Newspapers and glossy magazines produce what sells. And men’s golf sells more.

Even now, media coverage focusses almost exclusively on male sport, with coverage of women’s sport on TV just seven percent of total TV sport watched and only six percent of print news. Of this lowly figure, the slant is heavily towards sports other than golf. Most media sport decision-makers are still male, as are most sport journalists, particularly in golf where, in Australia, the number of females engaged in delivering golf stories nationwide can be counted on one hand.

In an article in The Conversation, an online newspaper written by academics, Beatrice Alba – a research fellow at La Trobe University –  wrote that gender inequality is underpinned by our “unconscious biases”. This points at the socialisation (read, indoctrination) at a subliminal level of children such that they grow up with the inherent belief that there are value differences between boys and girls.

Overt discrimination can be tackled legally and politically but unconscious bias is a lot harder to conquer.  Yet in order to truly achieve gender equality, Alba writes, we must do so.

A quick note on terminology, as there is often confusion on this. “Gender equality” refers to equality of opportunity; it does not, and should not, refer to the two genders being identical, for they are not. And this is what often leads to discrimination of perception. Because women are generally physiologically less powerful than men, their sport is then considered weak and lacking interest.

True gender equality lies in acknowledging the differences where they may be, celebrating them if they deserve, and at all times ensuring that there is fair and equitable treatment of both. The better expression, perhaps, is gender equitability, for that says what we really must have – parity of treatment and opportunity.

Of course, gender inequity is not the whole story either.

Changes over the last four decades in the way people live their lives – and work – have been enormous and well documented, and have had profound effect on sport, golf in particular.

Australian Sports Commission (ASC) research has shown that of the potential barriers to participation in sport, 38% of respondents listed time as their main concern, followed by injury (27%) and family (6%), with age, laziness and dislike amongst the smallest reasons.

Interestingly, the same research showed that females – unlike common assumptions – are actually as active as males, just differently, with their exercise sessions being shorter on average. It also found that 87% of women aged 15 years and over participated in a sport activity once a week and 57% of those paid to do it. The deduction is that, for females, length of time is a big issue but cost less so.

Other common barriers to playing golf include outdated dress regulations, the “culture’ of golf clubs including gender inequity, and the game’s perceived image.

That’s the challenge in a nutshell: to conquer the perception of golf itself and the stereotypes of the people who play it.

The 2015 Inquiry into Women and Girls in Sport and Active Recreation, chaired by Peggy O’Neil and established to advise the Victorian Minister for Sport on practical solutions, found that three things need to happen in sport. Sport itself needs to change, not women; there is a lot of work to be done; and – with projected figures in other research suggesting that at the current rate of change, equality will not be reached for 177 years – collaboration is needed if change is to happen in a meaningful way anytime soon.

One of the advances in modern feminist action is that men are joining in. Together we will win, say the male champions of change. With that spirit, it’s hard to see why not, either. So, collaboration: tick. A lot of work to be done: acknowledged. Changing the sport: understood.

In this, golf has other sports to follow. The rapid growth in women’s football and cricket in recent years shows that even the last bastions of male-dominated sport can be modified to meet modern demands and adapted to showcase women’s proficiencies. What golf must do for its own future is not get left behind.

So, the short answer to why the ratio of females to men in golf has dropped by over 14% without halt in nearly half a century? Because society changed, and golf did not.

The next question is: what are we, in golf, going to do about it in 2018?

Enter Vision 2025, the way forward.

First published in Golf Victoria magazine, April-May 2018 issue

Photo credits: Golf Victoria magazine

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Tee for Two is produced on the Traditional Country of the Boon Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation in Victoria and extends its respect to their Elders, past, present and emerging.