Under Par

In most careers, even those traditionally dominated by men, women are making substantial inroads. According the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women now comprise 34 percent of physicians, 32 percent of lawyers, 18 percent of chemical engineers, 16 percent of police officers and 6 percent of construction managers.

So why, in 2014, are less than 1 percent of golf course superintendents female? There are a lot of opinions out there. “It could start with the fact that many golf course superintendents learn about the career through summer jobs at golf courses,” surmises Peter Landschoot, a turfgrass extension specialist at Penn State University, one of the top schools for future superintendents. “Those jobs traditionally go to boys.”

“It could be the perception that this is a man’s job,” says Candice Combs, now golf course superintendent at Balboa Park Golf Course with the City of San Diego’s Golf Division and former super at PGA Tour host Torrey Pines’ South course. Then there are the working conditions. “At all but government run courses, superintendents are expected to work sun up to sun down, seven days a week. This has kept many women from entering the profession, and, in fact, has destroyed family life for many male supers I have known.”

“My perception is that the job has been equated with manual labor,” adds Scott Hollister, director of publications for the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America. “The fact is that there is much larger responsibility in terms of management, budgeting and finances. You don’t spend all your time in a ditch.”

The pipeline of future superintendents doesn’t seem to be changing; Landschoot says no women are currently enrolled in his program, although recent classes (which average 25 members) have included one or two.

Does It Matter?

According to the National Golf Foundation, the number of U.S. adults who play golf has dropped from 30 million in 2005 to 25.3 million in 2012 (the last year for which statistics are available). The decline in the number of golfers who play eight rounds or more per year has been gradual but steady; it’s fallen between 3 and 4 percent every year since 2006.

One strategy for turning those numbers around has been growing participation by women and other nontraditional players. However, it clearly isn’t working as the proportion of female players has barely budged since the 1980s, only growing one percentage point to the 21 to 22 percent range, according to the NGF.

Would more female employees make women feel welcome at golf courses? “It would make a difference if there were sometimes a bag girl who came out to your car instead of it always being a bag boy,” says Nancy Berkley, an author and consultant who focuses on growing the number of women golfers. “When the starters and pro shop employees are all men, it just reinforces the idea that golf is a man’s game.

She adds that on most courses it’s the PGA professional who controls the gate, so it’s most important that role be filled by someone who is female-friendly. When it comes to golf course superintendents, they shouldn’t be scheduling all the mowing or spraying of chemicals to be done on Tuesday if Tuesday is Ladies Day.

Related: Women Make Their Mark

“Having more women as superintendents is important because of the diversity because of the value that diversity brings in all walks of life,” Hollister says. “There would be an advantage for us as a membership organization, and that would help bring more women into the industry. Whatever you choose to do, you’re always looking for role models.”

Gillian Kreager, superintendent at Table Rock Golf Course in Centerburg, Ohio, says she’s not sure that it’s important to have a certain percentage of superintendents be females, but “it’s important for women to be able to do anything they can. Women who to be a superintendent will have to make sacrifices, but that’s true for all superintendents. It’s a tough job.”

Neither Combs nor Kreager report facing outright discrimination or harassment today (although Combs recalls being told that a golf course is no place for a woman when she started in 1977.) “It’s more that you’re an oddity when you walk into a room,” Kreager says.

“If a woman wants to be a superintendent, she better be pretty comfortable being surrounded by men,” Landschoot says.

The heavily male make up of the entire industry does play a role. “Construction, equipment operation, mechanics, irrigation repair, pesticide application, and even management positions are all male-dominated,” Combs says. “Because women aren’t represented in these areas, they don’t have the edge needed when it comes time to be selected. Also, senior leadership teams are dominated by men who set the tone for talent norms. These standards may be based on outdated gender attitudes that may not be readily apparent but favor selection of a male candidate.”

Tradition Dictates

In the United States, golf course superintendents have historically been male, but in Finland, Landschoot says, women are the norm. “After World War II, many men had died or been disabled so there was a shortage of workers,” he says. “Women started driving tractors and performing more farm work, and when they began building golf courses in Finland, they looked for farm workers to hire to take care of the turf. They tended to be women.”

Penn State has been proactive about bringing women into its agriculture programs, but turf management hasn’t kept up with other areas such as pest management. “It really comes down to identifying someone who’s a hard worker and bringing them along,” he says, “someone who doesn’t mind getting up early and has a natural drive and sense of curiosity.” Efforts include adding more women in pictures on program materials and outreach during career nights at high schools.

At the GCSAA, “we have an ongoing diversity program that’s focused on not just more women but to expand membership to all races, creeds and genders,” Hollister says. “We’re also forming a number of small organizations to allow women a better chance to connect.”

Combs believes moving the needle will require that more women be hired at all levels, and she has other ideas, too. “Colleges could offer scholarships to women seeking to become superintendents, and the industry could adopt a structured mentoring program specifically to encourage women to enter and advance in this field, with goals of leadership development and retention of newcomers.”

Judy Kenninger is a Brownsburg, Ind.-based freelance writer who has been covering leisure and recreation for nearly two decades.

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