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July 2018

Meet the Decision Makers

MeettheDecisionMakers.jpg‭By Steve Eubanks

Women make up 40 percent of all new players in golf; they are also leading in the industry.

In a North Carolina hotel ballroom filled with 400 middle-aged male PGA professionals, Nancy Berkeley, who already stood out like an orange in an apple orchard, took a microphone and said: “Show of hands: How many of you have ever played a round of golf with a 30-plus handicap woman?”
Seven hands went up. Less than 2 percent, among people whose livelihood depends on growing the game.

“The sad part is that it wasn’t shocking,” Berkeley, a longtime consultant for women’s golf said. “This wasn’t a group of random golfers. These were PGA professionals, men whose job is to service the game at every level. But only a handful had ever played a round with an average woman golfer. That’s what we’re up against. That’s what we’re trying to change.” 

Berkeley, a retired vice president and chief legal counsel at Prudential Financial, has spent the last 20 years consulting, writing and speaking about women’s golf, a passion that has led her to author three books for the National Golf Foundation and to sit on the Women’s Golf Committee of the World Golf Foundation.

“I was a little different than most girls back in my day because I grew up in Minneapolis and went to Washburn High School, which is the same school Patty Berg attended,” Berkeley said. “So, while I didn’t play golf growing up, I knew golf because Patty was a hometown hero. Then, when I was at the University of Minnesota, one of the requirements of graduation was taking a sport. Because of Patty, I chose golf. To graduate, I had to turn in scorecards from two rounds at the University of Minnesota Golf Course. That was how I got into the game and I’ve been passionate about it ever since.” 

She never got better than a 15 handicap. Marriage, kids, law school and a successful career limited her practice time. But something stuck with Berkeley throughout her 30-plus years in business. Nobody was making golf easier for women. The ladies tees at most courses, if they existed at all, were afterthoughts – flattened mounds off to the side of a fairway with no strategic value other than being out of the way for the men. She also saw that no organizations were promoting the women’s game or educating the industry on how to serve half the human population. 

“I was 42 and working at Prudential when a friend said, ‘You know, Nancy, women are always hesitant to take up golf because they don’t know the etiquette. They don’t know the rules. They don’t know where to go or what to do. And there’s nowhere they can go to learn.’ So, I started giving seminars at law firms. Female associates knew that they needed to understand golf to advance in their careers. I would go over everything they needed to know until they were comfortable.” 

That led Berkeley to write the first of her books: “Women’s Golf Programs That Work.” She followed that up with, “Women Welcome Here: a Guide to Growing Women’s Golf.”  

“What really turns me on is trying to help women be leaders in their respective communities,” Berkeley said. “To help them learn more about the game so that they can flourish, not just on the golf course but wherever they are where golf is spoken.”

One of those people Nancy indirectly paved the way for is Ricki Lasky, senior vice president of business affairs for the LPGA Tour. “Like so many women, I didn’t touch a golf club until I was in my 20s, which is sad,” Lasky said. “Even though, growing up I was a five-sport athlete and I played softball in college, golf wasn’t one of them.” 

Lasky thought about going into law but decided to pursue a passion instead. She went to culinary school. “It was during an internship at Pinehurst Resort (in North Carolina) that I was introduced to and fell in love with golf,” she said. “I became an executive chef and was on track to opening my own restaurant but felt as though I needed some front-of-the-house experience, so I became an assistant food-and-beverage director at Pinehurst.” 

Then fate in the form of Payne Stewart intervened. With the 1999 U.S. Open returning to Pinehurst, Lasky was approached about helping with corporate sales and client services for the championship. While a beautiful golf area, Pinehurst isn’t on the way to anywhere. Selling corporate hospitality and sponsorship packages in places like Southampton, New York, where the U.S. Open was held this year at Shinnecock Hills, is relatively easy. But the sandhills of North Carolina between Raleigh and Fort Bragg are not awash with high-profile companies. Bringing the corporate hospitality experience to the sleepy, end-of-the-train-tracks resort was just the kind of challenge that drove Lasky into golf for good.

“It all started for me with Payne Stewart making that putt in 1999 to win the U.S. Open (by one shot over Phil Mickelson),” she said. “I was hooked after that. From that point on, I worked at the various opens – the U.S. Senior Open and the U.S. Women’s Opens – that we had in the Pinehurst and Southern Pines area.” 

In 2012, a friend of Lasky’s named Roberta Bowman, who was senior vice president of Duke Energy, introduced the former chef to LPGA Tour commissioner Mike Whan. Whan recognized Lasky’s talent for bringing partners into golf. The fact that she wasn’t a former tour player and had come from outside the game was an even bigger plus. Lasky had the ability to see a tour sponsorship from all sides without any built-in bias.

“We (the LPGA Tour) had to get more title sponsors on board,” Lasky said of her mission when she arrived in Daytona Beach six years ago. “We had to get more events on the schedule. We were down. We were down to 27 tournaments at that point. I was also charged with taking care of the (title sponsors) we did have and making sure they remained a part of the family.” 

She did that by cultivating good old-fashioned relationships. “I’ve always tried to walk people into a win-win,” she said. “What I do is not sales. It’s more of a partnership. I want people to be able to go back to their boards and show a successful ROI because of this partnership. At the LPGA, we show that return to our partners by doing things differently than everyone else. We evaluate our partners’ business objectives and then we help them use our platforms, in whatever creative ways necessary, to meet those objectives.”  

Berkeley and Lasky are part of a slow but steadily growing trend in the industry: women executives who were not tour players or course owners but whose love of the game led them to the top of their fields.

“It’s incredible the strides we’ve made,” Lasky said. “Girls golf is the fastest growing segment in the game. Our LPGA partnerships with the USGA (in USGA-LPGA Girls Golf) and with the PGA have been wonderful. And if you look at people like Heather Daly-Donofrio (the LPGA chief communications and tour operations officer) and Suzy Whaley, about to become the president of the PGA of America, then you look at all the executives on our team, and you realize that we are all better when we work together. It’s not good for the game if we have all men at the table and it’s not good if we have all women at the table. We all work better when we work together.” 

Extrapolating the numbers, it is evident that upwards of 40 percent of all new players are female. That growth has spawned more women executives in the industry as well. Cindy Davis, a former collegiate player at Furman, was the president of Nike’s now defunct golf division and every major company in the golf industry has women either on the board or in top levels of management.

Women also make up a large segment of the game’s entrepreneurs. Christina Thompson, a former vice president of marketing for UnitedHealthcare, left the comfort of corporate America to become the Jeff Bezos of women’s golf with her Golf4Her website, the game’s first online retailer dedicated solely to the women’s game.

“I’ve been a golfer for 20 years and I’ve seen the evolution of women in the game,” Thompson said. “When I was at UHC, I traveled a lot and played a good bit of golf on the road. I always needed something to wear. Even if you belonged to a club, there was the one corner of women’s clothes and it was always the wrong size or a limited one-brand selection. The big-box stores were worse. I asked my friends and they were having the same problem, so I saw an opportunity.”

That opportunity became the first dropship, online apparel store for women’s golf clothing – a revolutionary concept that has turned the golf apparel business on its ear. Just as Amazon started with books, Thompson started with small, well-made brands she found on the floor of the PGA Merchandise show, vendors who would never make great strides competing against Nike and Adidas going door to door in golf shops.

“Those brands were looking for a platform,” Thompson said. “By adding the online piece with a dropship program, smaller brands were able to gain a foothold in an industry that is historically hard to penetrate.” 

She soon added larger brands, starting with Fila. Executives at those larger companies weren’t blind to the online retail revolution. They recognized the value of going direct to the consumer through a third-party website where their brands were presented and managed in a professional way. Ping, for example, is extremely picky about its online partners. As a family legacy brand, the Solheims will not associate with vendors who do not share their values. Thompson understood that and created value for all the brands within her site.

She also channeled Bezos’ obsession with customer service. Golf4Her is constantly updated and managed so no product on the site is ever out of stock. She also has a staff of specialists ready to live chat a customer through various product options. “We might have a customer that loves one brand of shirt or short but hates the cut of the top,” Thompson said. “So our staff helps steer that customer in the right direction to mix and match as needed to get where they want to go.

“With so many brands and options, choosing can be overwhelming. That’s where the staff comes in. It took a while to get vendors over the idea of steering customers away from sets. Now, they don’t care. Adidas, for example, would love for a customer to buy nothing but Adidas but they understand that it’s not realistic. Women want options. We provide that for them. That’s a (competitive) advantage.”

It’s also, says Thompson, a start. Just as Amazon began as a bookstore before revolutionizing retailing around the world, Golf4Her is using fashion as a jumping off point to change the industry.
“This is the tip of the iceberg,” she said. “My goal is to get more women playing golf. If the vehicle to do that is fashion, that’s great. Women are the family decision makers. They decide where you eat, where you live, what you buy. When we get to a point where women decide what the family sporting activity is, and they choose golf, that’s when we will have reached the ultimate goal. That’s what gets me up every day. That’s what I’m hoping we can eventually achieve.”  

Steve Eubanks is an Atlanta-based freelance writer and New York Times bestselling author.


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