Recently I wrote an article that was published in The Golf Business - UK edition. The title of the article was "Research and Rescue" and the focus of the article was on increasing inclusion of women in the golf industry. Here is the link: http://www.thegolfbusiness.co.uk/2018/02/how-research-will-get-more-women-playing-golf-at-your-club/
In the article, I raised the concern that I didn't think the right research questions were being asked, and the right people or disciplines were not participating in finding the answers to research questions. I said that I didn't think that the stagnant growth of the game in the women's market was solely due to simple marketing issues, and research that is needed cannot all be performed by simply doing a survey. I'd like to explain what I think the "right research questions" are, what research I think needs to be done, and who I think the "right people" are that should be delving into the issues that perpetually have been barriers to growing participation rates of women golfers.
The first step in performing any research is identifying what research questions need to be asked. Although I have some thoughts on what questions need to be asked and answered, truly finding the right people to formulate the right questions will require assembly of a focus group of persons from the many different disciplines that directly and tangentially impact the game of golf. The following list is not exhaustive, but a focus group to formulate questions should include at a minimum: sociologists, millennials, recreational as well as professional golfers, male and female golf pros, golf course superintendents, golf course architects, R & D personnel from equipment companies, equipment distribution and salespersons, golf course owners, food and beverage personnel, fitness and health professionals, clubhouse architects and interior designers, social psychologists, sports and environmental psychologists, teaching pros, coaches, male and female senior golfers, economists, cultural trend experts, bio-mechanics professionals, etc.
Additionally, there should be some recognition that different types of research are needed, ranging from surveys to demographic and sociology studies, and metric studies on hitting distances and analysis of swing bio-mechanics under different golf course maintenance regimes. The USGA and GCSAA both carry out environmental and turf research, however, studies on gender bias in design, maintenance practices, amenities and rest stations on the golf course also need to be carried out.
Just as surely as turf quality affects the game, so is the game impacted by the architecture of the golf course, the design and function of equipment, sales, distribution and merchandising practices, club fitting, cultural trends, economic trends, marketing messages, millennial behaviors, inclusivity and diversity trends, leadership in golf's governing bodies, PGA/LPGA teaching pro practices, customer service, and of course, the research (or lack of it).
The research questions that need to be asked need to be formulated by professionals in the aforementioned fields of influence and backed by reputable governing bodies and associations. Since cost, difficulty of the game, and time are all factors that have been identified as barriers to growing the game, these issues provide a good framework for discussion about research.
Course Design that Doesn't Fit the Women's Game Makes the Game More Difficult for Women
What makes the game difficult for women? Are there issues that selectively effect women more than men? What elements on a golf course (from a design perspective) make the game too difficult or conversely, too easy and boring for women? Are there design moves that neglect or discount the needs of women golfers? As an architect, I can give some ideas and maybe even as a woman, I can give some potential answers.
Golf course architects can make the golf course more or less difficult in ways non-architects might not imagine with simple grading alterations, angle or distance adjustments, hazard design, or green slope and approach adjustments.
So maybe architects should formulate research questions about how course design can and does make the game more difficult for shorter hitters. Silence in discussions about the gender bias in design of the golf course won't help the growth of the game, particularly if a certain design style prevents women from enjoying the game in the same way as men. It must be recognized that some of the shot characteristics of women and seniors make the game more difficult because of how the shot shape and golf ball trajectory interfaces with the designed landforms and landing areas of the golf course. Architects, club fitters, PGA/LPGA teaching pros and others who have done work on shot characteristics and swing speeds may be able to help to formulate research questions about ball flight/rollout and its impact on difficulty of the game for the shorter hitter.
Substandard Equipment For Women Makes the Game More Difficult
Another factor that surely makes the game more difficult for women, seniors, juniors, and differently-abled persons is mediocre equipment. My article in Golf Business (UK version) touched on inadequacies in equipment design, quality, availability and choice for women. Just like asking the "right" questions about course design would be beneficial, there are surely research questions that the equipment researchers, designers and manufacturers would be able to formulate and answer that others certainly would not.
We assume the manufacturers have special insight into the physics and bio-mechanics of the golf swing and develop their equipment accordingly, however, to what demographic do they devote most of their R&D? Most in the industry have heard discussions about changes in equipment and the golf ball, and how these changes effect distance for those with high swing speeds, but what about equipment for the shorter hitter? Just as surely as a trampoline driver face can assist the golfer with a high swing speed, there must be technology to make the game just as fun for an individual with a low swing speed. It is possibly time for the weight, size, and dimpling on the golf ball to be considered? Individuals with knowledge may have to help formulate the right research questions since the manufacturers might consider the information to be proprietary.
Lack of Availability and Choice of Equipment Makes the Game More Difficult For Women
Another issue to examine is a possible breakdown in the supply chain that makes properly designed and properly fit equipment available to women. Asking the right questions to find out why women don't get fit for equipment as often as men, or why supply and choice of quality equipment for women is limited compared to men is necessary in order to understand the issues. If a research study were done that counted the number of different shoe styles available to male golfers versus female golfers, or the number of stock golf club sets on display for male golfers versus club sets for female golfers, there would surely be a tremendous disparity. Taking that study one step further to drill down on why this situation exists would bring us closer to revealing the root causes of gender inequity in the golf industry. Since women make a gross majority of familial purchasing decisions, the claim that economics drive the supply doesn't hold water.
The idea that women don't buy or spend money on quality product is an overblown excuse and simply incorrect. I would actually propose that women are discerning buyers and don't like to buy cheap substandard products and that higher quality products would be more popular. Until the trivialized gender inequities related to equipment quality and availability are addressed, this barrier to growing the game will persist.
If you don't believe there is a gender bias in the manufacture and availability of quality products (and customer service), just go purchase a men's suit.... then try to find a quality women's business suit in nearly any store, anywhere.... unless it is custom-made forget about quality or customer service or tailoring except in only the very high-end stores. The difference in customer service and product quality is truly shocking. The inequities are similar when looking for quality golf products for women. In this realm, I don't have a lot of "right questions," but the professionals in this area of expertise would likely have some good ones. As many have been recently recognizing, there is unmet latent demand for women's golf products and welcome participation, and only by studying the causative issues can we begin to formulate solutions.
Another aspect that has been identified as slowing growth and participation in the sport is cost. This may be an issue that can selectively effect women more than men, since the average woman only makes 77% as much as the average man. Seniors get a discount because they are on a fixed budget, so maybe women should get a discount. Or maybe it is not cost effective for a mother earning 77% as much as men to pay for 4 hours of childcare plus the cost of a round of golf. I know it may sound like I am contradicting my earlier thoughts about familial budget and spending, but the only way to understand the issue is to formulate the right research questions and look for answers. Asking the right questions might lead us to answers like on-site child care or better yet, a weekly junior golf program while the mothers (and some fathers) play golf. This would provide a training ground for the next generation of golfers and create an atmosphere where the entire family has a common leisure activity. The right people to formulate cost questions might be entertainment and leisure market specialists, sociologists, economists, or novel idea: how about women golf patrons themselves and/or seniors on a fixed budget?
Finally, what experts would be the "right" ones to formulate good questions about how people spend their time? Sociologists, demographers, economists, entertainment and recreation professionals come to mind. These professionals might be able to formulate questions to find out if it would be beneficial to have convenience services at the golf club, like a dry-cleaning drop off, car wash service, postal box, exercise gym, child care, internet and office services, convenience products and dog food, coffee shop, or takeout/home foods for the family.
Finally, as families and individuals are more and more stressed and pressed for time, what does the sport of golf provide as a counterbalance? I am not a time-study professional, but I do know golf is a good stress reliever that can provide meditative moments of quiet respite. It is also a good source of fitness, vitamin D from the sun, and socialization, all factors found to be beneficial to health. In this regard, health professionals, psychologists, and therapists might be the right persons to formulate research questions.
WHO IS RESPONSIBLE?
Why the governing bodies of the sport have been slow set a clear vision and strategic plan for a gender-inclusive future for the game is a complicated question. There are so many different golf associations, societies, and institutions that is it hard to keep track, but it would seem that the USGA and R&A are the definitive leaders. Both governing bodies have made some significant steps forward in recent years, but this push needs to continue without backing off. Major positive change is on the horizon, and research can help to define the future. In summary, asking the right people to formulate the right research questions might help to formulate effective strategic plans for economic success, inclusiveness, and a brighter future for the game. We are closer now than ever before to throwing open the clubhouse door for women!