29 October 2016

Why Young Women Dominate Golf but Struggle with Longevity 

Daniel Gallan

When comparing the best men and women golfers in the world, it is clear that women are dominating at a much younger age but are struggling to remain at the top for long periods of time. The cultural and societal pressures that women face are not shared by men and these added challenges play a massive role in why this phenomenon is occurring. 

Lydia Ko (19), the world's number 1, tees off the fifth hole during the third round of the women's 2016 U.S. Open golf tournament at CordeValle Golf Club.  Image supplied by Action Images / Kevin Kuo.

Lydia Ko (19), the world's number 1, tees off the fifth hole during the third round of the women's 2016 U.S. Open golf tournament at CordeValle Golf Club. Image supplied by Action Images / Kevin Kuo.

When looking at the six athletes who won medals in golf at the recent Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, a casual observer might infer that men and women are required to perform different tasks out on the course much like male and female gymnasts perform on different apparatus under the umbrella of gymnastics. What other explanation could there be for the dramatic age disparity between the male medallists and their female counterparts?

The three male medallists, Justin Rose (35), Henrik Stenson (40) and Matt Kuchar (38) have an average age of 37.6. Compare that to the average age of the women’s medallists, Inbee Park (28), Lydia Ko (19) and Shanshan Feng (27), whose average age is a mere 24.6. That is a full 13 year difference.

Admittedly, the Olympic Games is but one event in a sport stacked with tournaments throughout the year, but a look at the top 20s of each sex reveals an interesting narrative.

The average age of the women’s top 20 is 25.7. For the men it’s 32.7. The top 6 women golfers in the world are all under 25 with Lydia Ko, still a teenager, the best of them all. Jordan Spieth, at 23, is the youngest man in a top 20 that includes two over 40s and 10 over 30s. By contrast, there are two teenagers in the top 20 female golfers, with only four over 30 and none over 40.

Comparing the age differences between men and women in other sports highlights the gap that exists in golf. The average age of both the top 20 men and women tennis players is 27.6. The average age of female swimmers who represented the USA in Rio is 22.6 compared to 24 for the men. The eight male and female sprinters that started the 100m finals in Rio have combined ages of 26 and 25 respectively.

So what is happening in golf? Sure men are required to hit the ball further than women, but the fundamentals of hitting it into a distant hole with a stick in as few shots as possible remains the same.

Before exploring the reasons as to why this age disparity between the sexes exists, it is important to debunk one possible explanation. The physiological differences between men and women play no part in this phenomenon.

Samantha Quinn is a researcher at the University of the Witwatersrand, specialising in biomechanics and human movement, as well as a physiotherapist at The Golf School of Excellence in Johannesburg. She is adamant that physiology is not the answer as the mechanics of the game are the same no matter who is playing it.

“It’s not like gymnastics where men are on the rings and need developed muscles and women are on the beam and need light frames,” Quinn says. “The reasons we see this age discrepancy in golf has to do with social and cultural issues surrounding the sport.”

The most concerning contributor to this has to do with the massive wage gap that exists in golf. Last year 11 female golfers earned over $1 million in prize money on the LPGA (Ladies Professional Golf Association). In contrast, 110 men crossed the $1 million mark on the PGA (Professional Golfers Association).

The top earning woman, Thailand’s Ariya Jutanugarn, cashed in just under $2.5 million in 2016. On the men’s list she would be ranked 38th. As you go down the list the numbers shrink dramatically, so much so that the 100th top earning woman, Celine Herbin, didn’t break six figures and yet 246 men did.

Ashleigh Simon admits that even at 27 she still feels like a seasoned pro on tour.

Ashleigh Simon admits that even at 27 she still feels like a seasoned pro on tour.

As Quinn points out, “Pro golf is hard on families and there comes a point when you have to choose. Perhaps if golf wasn’t as lucrative for men we would see the same situation where younger men dominate and older men can’t sustain their careers for as long.” By extension, if women’s golf was more lucrative we might see a higher number of older women competing on tour.

According to Ashleigh Simon, one of two South African women golfers who competed in Rio earlier this year, these financial pressures lead to heightened mental challenges which contribute to women retiring from the sport much earlier than men.

Simon turned pro at 18 and at 27 is already a 9 year veteran on the tour. She explains how top female golfers seek to turn pro as soon as they can in order to cash in on as many years as possible. This leads to mental burnout at a much younger age as a result of high levels of intensity crammed into a short space of time.

“The men know that even if they’re ranked 300th, they’re still able to make a lot of money compared to us,” Simon says. “They can pace themselves and enjoy time away from golf. If they have a bad tournament or even a bad year they’re still making good money. For us, we have to hit it as hard as we can as soon as we can and I believe that these levels of intensity would be hard to keep up, even for the top men.”

Simon explains how 12 years on tour take their toll on the mind more so than the body. The pressures of being an elite golfer are enormous and are compounded by the fact that the majority of the year is spent away from home. This impacts both men and women but with this substantial gap in prize money, men have the luxury of taking a step away from the sport when needed knowing full well that their next pay cheque will serve as adequate compensation.

“I look at guys like Rory [McIlroy] and Jordan [Spieth] and they really enjoy themselves outside of golf. And those are just two of them. Most of the guys on tour appear far more relaxed than the girls,” Simon says. “Lydia [Ko] is the only top ranking woman I can think of who does this but even she has said that she only wants to play until she’s 30. Burnout is a real thing and not enough people give it the attention it deserves.”

Simon believes that the fact that 31 of the top 50 golfers come from Asian countries, with 23 hailing from South Korea, helps explain why younger women dominate the sport but suffer from mental fatigue when they hit their 30s. “These girls from Korea eat, sleep and breathe golf,” she says. “There is nothing else that they seem interested in. They’re great girls and are a pleasure to be with on tour, but they are so focussed and so dedicated 24/7. It must take its toll.”

Another contributing factor for this age disparity could be that women’s golf, as a professional sport, is much younger than the men’s game and as a recognised global product is still very much in its infancy.

The PGA of Great Britain and Ireland was founded in 1901 and 15 years later, the PGA of America made its debut. It wasn’t until 1950 that the LPGA was founded and only as recently as 1996 that a female golfer broke the $1 million barrier for a year’s worth of prize money.

“Because our sport is still so young, we don’t have the generationally ingrained culture that the men’s game has,” Quinn says. “As we’ve seen with women’s football, it takes decades for a sport to cement itself and for enough women to see a future in the sport. More young women are looking at golf and seeing it as a possible career.”

So then if more young women are entering the sport than ever before, does this mean that eventually this age gap will reduce and that the top 20 list in women’s golf will more closely resemble the men’s top 20? Not according to Simon who cites a variable that is not shared among the sexes.

“For many women, the desire to have kids and start a family becomes a priority and of course, golf takes a back seat during pregnancy and the early years of raising your child,” she says. “Not every woman will have this urge but most do.”

Not only does that impact the longevity of their career but it also means they have to try and get the most money they can while they are on tour. This adds to the mental fatigue which already cuts short many careers.

Men do not share in this. Of course many male golfers are fathers and take time away from the game to be with their partners and children, but the differences are obvious. A man’s body does not change, he does not fall pregnant, he does not go through the physical experience of birthing a child and the societal pressures on him to stay close to the baby after it is born are not as prevalent as they are with women.

Furthermore, as top male golfers earn more that top female golfers, the pressure to get back out on the course and start making money again are not as great for men. Without having to contend with the above physical and mental challenges, top male golfers have the financial buffer to get back to his profession at his own leisure.

There are also the disparaging prejudices that surround men and women of a certain age. The National Post ran an article in 2012 proclaiming that at 37, legendary Australian golfer Karrie Webb “still has golf left in her”. The same is not being stated about Bubba Watson or Jimmy Walker, both of whom are 37 and in the top 20 men’s list.

Paulina Gretzsky poses for the cover of the May edition of Golf Digest.

Paulina Gretzsky poses for the cover of the May edition of Golf Digest.

According to both Simon and Quinn, the stigma surrounding women’s bodies as they get older plays a role in the mental fortitude of athletes and impacts their motivation to continue on tour. Simon admits that at 27 she feels “old” and that questions of her age routinely come up. Just to clarify, she is 27. Questions surrounding a male athlete’s age at 27 would be laughable.

This is heightened by the fact that female athletes’ bodies are still largely objectified. In May 2014, Paulina Gretzsky appeared on the cover of Golf Digest - the first woman in the history of the magazine to do so. Not only was she scantily clad, she isn't even a golfer. Rather, she is the fiancée of top male golfer Dustin Johnson.

“It was outrageous and offensive,” Simon says. “To put a non-golfer as the first woman on their cover was a smack in the face for every girl on tour. Not that looks are important, but we have plenty of good looking women who can actually play golf really well. Unfortunately sex sells and the ladies on tour have yet another extra pressure to deal with that men don’t. Don’t think that doesn’t play a role on when we decide to retire.”

The myriad of factors that contribute to the age disparity between the top male and female golfers in the world are entrenched in the societal and cultural blind spots that exist in most facets of life.

That is not to say that once they change a higher percentage of older women will be winning tournaments, but at the very least, male and female golfers should be treated as equals and be given the same opportunities to prolong their careers.

However, both Simon and Quinn are not concerned by the dominant youngsters that we see today. If anything they are proud of it. They see it as a sign that the game is in rude health and is filled with superstars that can carry the sport forward for the next decade.

Young girls who watch Lydia Ko, Brooke Henderson, Lexi Thompson and Ariya Jutanugarn dominate the world for the next decade will have heroes to look up to who will serve as examples that golf is a viable career for talented women.

Hopefully these icons will be around for a long time and will help usher in a new age of women’s golf where both seasoned pros and fresh faced rookies battle it out on the course.