That most golf designers, through the history of the profession, have been men isn’t wholly surprising. In the early part of the twentieth century, when golf course architecture emerged, most members of most professions were men.
Among the first women ever to get seriously involved with course design were the leading British amateur Molly Gourlay, who worked with Tom Simpson on a number of projects, and her American colleague Marion Hollins, the brains behind the development of Cypress Point in California. Hollins, it is claimed, convinced Alister MacKenzie to build the famous par-three sixteenth at Cypress Point by teeing up a ball and proving that the carry was achievable.
In the near hundred years that followed Gourlay and Hollins, though, very few women have practiced golf course architecture, and one of the only women who is listed as the main designer of a course is a signature name – Annika Sorenstam. It is in this way that golf design has diverged from other professions, which, even if they are not now equally divided between men and women, are certainly much closer. Buildings architecture, for example, has made significant strides in this regard in recent years: figures from the RIBA Journal indicate that in 2018, 28 per cent of architects were female, but women made up 44 per cent of new entrants to the profession that year.
Golf architecture, of course, is a much smaller profession, and there are far fewer opportunities for people to join the business (it may be noted too that golf architects seem to be very slow to retire!). Jan Bel Jan, one of the industry’s few long-established women, and recently president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects, notes the importance of this factor. “As with most professions with relatively few practitioners, if there is not awareness that the profession exists, there is little likelihood that there would be many aspirants to said profession,” she says. “For years, male-to-female golfers has hovered around 80/20 (in the US). So it makes sense that most golf content is about and by men, including stories involving golf course architecture.”
Minneapolis-based architect Kari Haug, who is leading the European Institute of Golf Course Architects’ efforts to open the business up to women, says: “While little boys grow up watching and learning from fathers or other male role models who might participate on greens committees, work as superintendents or even golf course architects, little girls usually don’t have this same experience.” Haug says the absence of a mentor can create a “generational gap” in professional knowledge for women golf course architects: “Most architects learn the art while working with a mentor or as an apprentice. Skill development is facilitated through this relationship and further, mentees are introduced to the mentor’s network of professional colleagues. When there are not women to mentor other women or men who are willing to step up, there are few shoulders for young women to stand upon to facilitate career development.” Haug, whose mentor was American architect Garrett Gill, also emphasises the importance of role models. Hers was Alice Dye. “One of my biggest business disappointments is that I never got to meet her before her passing,” says Haug. “One of my professional goals now is to recruit women to stand upon my shoulders before another generation adds to the gap, and that is why I am enthusiastically advocating for recruitment of women in the field of golf course architecture.”
Read more about golf’s pioneering women.
Kristine Kerr of New Zealand-based Kura Golf Design, one of the very few women who has her name on a new course design, agrees with this suggestion. “People need either to be drawn to a profession or fall into it… golf course design is not widely known of as a profession,” she says. “Opportunities need to be there! In terms of global golf projects and major new developments, it is very cyclical at the whim of economies and golf course design is not always in high demand. I ‘fell into it’ at a time when golf development was booming in the 1990s in Singapore, where my parents were living. I had a degree in landscape architecture and learnt the ropes with Nelson Wright Haworth, who were prolific and highly regarded. My dad was a scratch golfer and we were exposed to golf from an early age. We also moved from NZ to Australia for my parents to be involved in the development of Palm Meadows in Queensland.” Kerr subsequently worked with Gary Player Design in Europe and China and credits them and NWH with giving her the expertise and exposure to win her own commissions.
Bel Jan says: “When people see others like themselves participating in a game or profession, they are likely to participate, too. When male golfers read about golf course architecture, they saw that not only as a dream, but a possible walk of life. Globally, the few women who were acknowledged as golf course architects received little public recognition, so the possibility of golf course design as a profession was not seen by females, or by males who may have suggested such a career to their daughters, sisters, friends, or students.”
Bel Jan continues: “In recent years, females have enjoyed an increasing presence on the golf course, on secondary school and collegiate teams, in multiple golf organisations, and with vendors and suppliers that support golf. Most of these women and girls were introduced to golf by a male family member or friend, just as most men have been introduced to golf.”
It was a passion for golf that drew Italian architect Giulia Ferroni into the course design profession. She says: “I studied architecture and after university started working in the building design business. I spent a few years designing houses, offices, shops and furniture, but I ended up being not completely satisfied by that career, as golf is my passion.”
Martin Hawtree provided Ferroni with the opportunity to enter the golf business. “I spent lots of time on site and in the office, and as an eager reader went through Martin’s entire library,” says Ferroni, who completed the EIGCA’s professional diploma course in 2018 and has now established her own firm, Leeds Golf Design, in the UK.
“You have to be very committed to find your way to become a golf course designer. It is a very specific career – there are very few golf design firms compared to other businesses, so the chance of entering the industry and have success can be very limited,” says Ferroni. “The best candidates may be players, who are very passionate about the game and want to move forward exploring the discipline of designing golf courses. But the statistics show fewer girls play than boys, and carry on through the years. This is the core of the problem, there are fewer women in golf design because fewer girls start playing at a young age.”
Although womens’ golf has become much higher profile and popular in recent years, the public perception of the game, in much of the world, is still of domination by middle-aged and elderly men. That the urban myth that golf got its very name because it stood for ‘Gentleman Only, Ladies Forbidden’ should have any traction at all emphasises the point.
German architect Angela Moser, who works with some of the industry’s leading lights, including Tom Doak and Gil Hanse, says: “There are not many footsteps to follow as a female in the golf industry, but big ones to fill. From Ida Dixon, May Dunn, Marion Hollins and Molly Gourlay to Alice Dye, there have always been women in golf design. These women stepped up to, advised and influenced architectural legends like Alister MacKenzie, Tom Simpson, Tom Dunn and Pete Dye, who saw them as having a valuable opinion. But no clients saw them as equal or sole designers. With a wholly different social environment, these women found the courage to speak up and are the reason for some of today’s most iconic golf holes and courses.
“In a sport that has such a long history of being for ‘gentlemen only’, the golf industry will need more time to adapt to the social change that is happening worldwide. Today our society is already transitioning to open up clubs, workspaces and job opportunities to women. We are setting the standard for the liberal industry-to-be.”
Moser continues: “Yes, we need to break old habits, pride and prejudices. But this does not mean supporting a person because of her gender to get the numbers right. We have to look at their personality, performance, talent, potential and grit.
“I fell in love with golf design while playing amateur tournaments as a teenager and started to work in the industry to learn every aspect of the business. While I never thought to operate an excavator or bulldozer daily, I was convinced that it would not hurt to learn the craft of shaping. I try to keep my mind open and learn different styles, methods and make my own experiences to expand my knowledge. To me, it is about using those possibilities best and give back, to educate the next generation’s talents, no matter what gender.”
Canadian designer Christine Fraser, who, like Ferroni, got her start working for the Hawtree firm in the UK, says: “We can substitute almost any male dominated profession for golf design, and the answer to the question ‘Why aren’t there more women?’ will be the same. Is it because men simply make better architects or writers or broadcasters? Resoundingly no – it is the result of a cyclical system that perpetuates and reinforces the historic lack of inclusion, exposure, and resources available for women to excel in this industry at the same rate as their male colleagues.
“Golf tends to be a reflection of the economic and social times surrounding it. And not unlike modern society at large, it has a disparaging history of excluding and marginalising women from the game. We have never felt entirely welcomed or considered by the institution of golf. Women today still bear the weight of overcoming a long series of inequities which was deliberately designed to create and enforce a gender imbalance to privilege men. We must overcome a vast array of unconscious (and conscious) institutionalised sexism to overcome barriers and constraints imbedded in golf culture.”
Fraser continues: “A woman’s experience on the golf course is comprehensive and nuanced and not always reflected in important management, maintenance or architectural decisions. Overlooking our experience has created a social closure where many women feel unwelcome, undeserving, discouraged, and more likely to drop out of golf, consequently perpetuating the gender participation imbalance that is so detrimental to the sustainability of golf.
“People often choose to pursue careers in the golf industry because they have cultivated a love of the game, and that likely evolves from playing. And for a variety of reasons, some listed above, women and girls do not play golf at the same rate as their gender counterparts. Therefore, until we vastly increase the participation rates of women and girls, the professional gender equity will remain imbalanced. If we continue to perpetuate a top-down approach, golf will always be governed by men. We must consider grassroots intervention, and affirmative action to place women in positions to disrupt a system so entrenched as golf. Golf will be better for it.”
But if the golf environment has become more welcoming to women in recent years, the business realities of the game have gone the other way. “A period of time that really stood out for golf course architects was the decade prior to the economic disruption that began in 2000,” says Bel Jan. “It was a fantastic era! The opportunity to be engaged in golf course design was possible for those who knew it could be a profession and who then chose to pursue that career. The 1990s was a decade when women were very active in golf course design. If there was a time when everyone could learn that golf course design was a profession and that there were women successfully engaged in it, that was the time to illuminate the golf world and beyond.
Bel Jan continues: “Since 2000 far fewer golf courses have been built. With limited projects came limited opportunities to design or redesign golf courses. This meant a loss of talented designers who opted to pursue other work, as well as far fewer opportunities to begin a career in golf course design. Twenty years on, golf course architecture may be recognised and appreciated by experienced golfers, but without exposure to its practitioners, including female golf course architects, men and women are unaware of golf course design as a possible career choice. With more women playing golf at higher skill levels and who want to have golf as a career, but are not good enough to make it on tour, golf course design is an avenue – if they know the profession of golf course architecture exists, if projects exist, and if they are afforded the opportunity to be hired. In March 2020, the ASGCA hosted a Junior Design Challenge in three age groups for golfers 8-17 years old, and 33 per cent of entries we received were from girls. We know there is interest in golf course architecture from girls.”
Kari Haug highlights the financial pressures: “Golf course architecture is an expensive profession. There are websites and software licenses to maintain, professional dues, travel and marketing expenses, continuing education, and so forth. While these expenses exist for male architects as well, women have the additional obstacle of making only 77 cents on the dollar as compared to men, when they can get the job. It is a fact that most men (and women) will tend to hire men for architecture jobs, and when women do get the work, compensation is often much lower than for men. Being overlooked for work, and paid less when we get it, makes keeping a business solvent quite difficult.
“I don’t know for sure, but I think the difficulties in securing work and the consequential financial strain causes most female architects to eventually close up shop and leave the profession. If not financial strain, there must be some other insidious force that causes attrition, because many women have completed rigorous education, but have not stayed in the profession. Further, the financial outlook likely causes those considering entrance to the profession to choose a different career path. I know this to be true in the case of at least one promising female architect.”
Kerr points out that women shouldn’t however be put off by the prospect of unequal pay, saying: “I have always been paid well and in line with my male counterparts, and I hope that provides some inspiration that other females can be rewarded financially in golf.”
So, what is the outlook? Moser quotes Alice Dye, who said: “Discrimination in golf isn’t going to be broken down by women, it’s going to be broken down by the fathers of daughters who see that their female child doesn’t have the same opportunity as their son.”
Moser says: “Transition won’t happen in a day, week or year. It will slowly change, especially as golf design is such a small niche. Ultimately, what is holding back more women designers is finding clients who will make the leap to hiring us. But as more women play golf, so will more enter the industry. It will become less special and quite normal to see a woman as an architect, shaper or superintendent.
“Until then, it can only be the goal to grow interest, mentor and involve equally eager and talented women into the golf design world, working alongside the best architects of the current era.”
This article first appeared in the January 2021 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.