USGA defunding endangers women’s golf associations

This special report from GottaGoGolf founder Susan Fornoff follows nearly two years of research and interviews. It’s a complicated topic filled with alphabet soup, but one we hope you’ll agree is important to women’s golf.

Image of women's golf association graphic

The United States Golf Association, which conducts the U.S. Women’s Open and governs the amateur game in this country, has begun a consolidation process that is forcing handicap-administering women’s state and regional golf associations to merge into their male counterparts.

Starting January 1, only newly designated “Allied Golf Associations,” all of them former men’s golf associations, will be licensed by the USGA to administer handicaps. Women’s associations that relied on handicap fees for operating revenue now face the golf equivalent of a 250-yard carry over water to stay in the game: They must either merge into the newly anointed regional AGA; persuade their AGA to subsidize or otherwise help them maintain their identity; or, break away from the USGA structure and find a new way to survive.

It’s a classic dilemma. Most women’s associations have conceded the match and merged, while the few remaining holdouts lament the choices.

“In the (USGA’s) letter, they talk about us being important to cultivating, promoting and engaging with the golf community at the local level,” said Caroline O’Brien, executive director of the Pacific Women’s Golf Association, which serves Northern California public course clubs. “It is ironic then that they choose to cut off our revenue source, and still expect us to continue to conduct programs and activities locally.”

Cheryl Wohlgemuth, executive director of the San Diego County Women’s Golf Association, also criticized the USGA action. “The women’s associations are being defunded and the USGA is trying to force them to merge into the men’s associations,” she said. “Our clubs voted unanimously not to merge. The women want to stay together. They don’t want to merge and have the men take over.”

In a 2016 interview, USGA senior managing director of business affairs Sarah Hirshland denied that the ensuing consolidation movement would effectively shut down women’s associations or impact their programs. “This isn’t in any way dictating who anybody plays with or what kind of events or tournaments exist in that regard,” she said. “If anything, the USGA is as or more committed to women’s golf than we’ve ever been.”

She said the goal of the consolidation initiative was “driving greater value, greater engagement, a greater experience to golfers and the golf facilities at which they play.”

The core driver, Hirshland said, was “elevating the value proposition for all golfers.”

PWGA past president Jane Sullwold, a California attorney, summarized the scenario this way: “The NCGA (Northern California Golf Association), SCGA (Southern California Golf Association), and the other large, mostly male associations who worked on this plan for two years before it was rolled out in September 2015 all jumped at the notion of limiting USGA’s provision of handicapping services to ‘full-service’ associations in exclusive geographic areas because they knew they would be picked. And the smaller associations, including all the women’s associations like ours, would be forced to merge to provide handicaps to members.

“There is no question that this plan is a death knell to women’s associations.”

THE BACKGROUND ON USGA CONSOLIDATION

Leading the USGA’s reorganization plan is Hirshland, 41, who received a biology degree from Duke University and worked in sports business and marketing for companies including Wasserman Media Group.

She sees the handicap system, which assigns golfers ratings so that they can compete fairly against players of different ability, as “one of the most fundamental aspects of the game of golf, one that should be an enabler of the social aspects and playing aspects of the game.” It’s also one of the biggest offerings of the USGA, a nonprofit that has more than $3 million in assets and pays Hirshland more than $600,000, according to Golf Digest’s What People in Golf Make.

Hirshland, who joined the USGA in October 2011, describes a golf “ecosystem” of the USGA, state and regional associations, courses and golfers. Most golfers, she said, do not realize when they join a golf club that they also have joined a state or regional association that is part of the USGA.

Which association have they joined? Whichever association to which their club belongs. Using the Northern California example, that would be the Women’s Golf Association of Northern California if the member’s club is a women’s club at a private course. That could be PWGA if the member’s club is a women’s club at a public course, or it could be the 90-percent male NCGA if the member’s club instead chose that affiliation. The San Francisco chapter of the national Executive Women’s Golf Association, for example, affiliates with NCGA, not PWGA.

The association delivers club members their handicaps in twice-monthly emails and is responsible for rating golf courses its members play. The association also conducts state and regional tournaments for its members, as well as informal play days and social events. Larger women’s associations such as those in California and Colorado may also have scholarship programs and raise money for girls’ golf.

Now, the USGA has committed to unifying six worldwide handicap administrations into one global system by 2020. In 2015, it began to create a new vision for its own structure – “a framework for what an ideal state might look like,” Hirshland said in that 2016 interview.

That’s when it decided that each state, or in California’s case, region, would have only one USGA-licensed governing body or AGA. And to qualify, the association had to be serving both men and women and both private and public golf clubs.

Which ruled out women’s associations.

MERGERS AREN’T SUCH BAD BUSINESS

Image of txga.orgThe 2,500-member San Diego County WGA and the Women’s Public Links Golf Association of Southern California have chosen to break away from the USGA’s new structure rather than merge into SCGA. They will continue to operate tournaments and events, offsetting the revenue loss with barebones overhead.

But several large associations, including the former Women’s Southern California Golf Association and Colorado Women’s Golf Association, have negotiated mergers enthusiastically and with overwhelming support from their membership.

In Southern California, the vote was 197-3 in favor of July 1 “unification” with the SCGA. As with all other mergers, the women’s association will relinquish its autonomy and its name, but, said the announcement, “The organization’s rich heritage and spirit are important to the SCGA and will remain through the continuation of comprehensive programs and events for women.”

And in Colorado, CWGA executive director Laura Robinson said of a similar July 1 merger of the 101-year old, 17,000-woman organization with the 43,000-man Colorado Golf Association, “We’re integrating and it’s all good news. We see this as an opportunity to be stronger, better and have access to more resources. It’s a real positive. We are doing something historic.”

Mergers make good business sense for many companies, and in recent years golf associations have been finding their way organically to meetings of the male and female minds. New Jersey, Utah, Florida, Rhode Island and Texas all joined hands and sang “Kumbaya” before the USGA edict.

USGA Women’s Committee Chairman Pam Murray recalls what happened in Texas in 2014.

“The process of merging was difficult,” Murray said. “We had to work through changing our identity and finding ways to retain our history as well as our service to our loyal members.”

One has only to look at txga.org (screenshot above) to see that women continue to command a gallery in the unified Texas Golf Association. “As we look back,” she said, “it is clear that the women in Texas have better opportunities today than we were offering as a separate entity. We have a lot more events for women and our access to quality golf courses has improved. We added a women’s stroke play championship (we previously only had match play) and we’ve added fun golf days and scrambles all over the state.

“We also have deeper pockets now, which has allowed us to invest more money in scholarships for young girls and girls’ golf programs.”

Those earlier mergers didn’t feel forced, however. “In those cases,” Wohlgemuth said, “it became a partnership, rather than ‘we’re taking you over and that’s that.’ ”

More recent mergers, in Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri and Southern California, have occurred because the men’s associations had been designated AGAs and the women’s associations had little leverage. Again, one need only to look at the websites to see whether the women have forfeited their identity or enhanced it.

Only in Colorado and Arizona did the women hold a card: No association qualified to be the anointed one because the men’s associations served only men, so the USGA told the candidates to work things out. After all, a USGA spokesperson said, “There have been numerous distinct arrangements between associations, ranging from collaborative working agreements to complete mergers…In one instance, a newly merged entity will be governed by co-presidents, one male and one female. Each situation is different.”

As Colorado’s Robinson put it, “There’s a whole quilt out there in the country.”

Her Colorado WGA considered many options, including breaking away from the USGA, but told its members in a detailed Q-and-A, “Without the revenue from handicapping, it would not be feasible to serve our clubs or women golfers as we do today.” The unified CGA will, at least through 2018, have co-presidents.

Arizona’s new working agreement, on the other hand, guarantees the 23,000-member Arizona Women’s GA independence for three more years. During that time, a joint USGA services committee will administer handicaps, conduct course ratings and handle rules matters for both the AWGA and the Arizona GA. Otherwise, both will operate independently – and unmerged.

“We’ve given women golfers a voice with our association for 100 years,” AWGA executive director Mary Pomroy said in a 2016 interview. “They need to keep that.”

WHAT IT ALL MEANS TO WOMEN GOLFERS

Monopolies tend to result in price hikes, so golf, considered to be elitist already, could become more expensive for women. Or, maybe some rebels will offer renegade handicaps and create a whole new market competing with the USGA. “Two San Diego clubs have told us they are not going to join the SCGA,” Wohlgemuth said. “They know how to calculate handicaps and will continue in the old way.”

On the other hand, it is not considered politically correct anymore to designate a club a “men’s club,” so why should it be acceptable to have a women’s club? After all, the handicap system allows for anyone to have a fair match against anyone else – man, woman or child. Do women really need their own golf tournaments?

Absolutely, say the experts. Middle and high-handicap women amateurs play from different tees, and favor more forgiving courses than men tend to. Generally, men crave the competition, women the companionship. So at women’s tournaments, shotguns prevail over tee times and prizes of jewelry trump trophies.

“Women play differently than men,” said WGANC president Kim Algren. “Women look forward to a shotgun start at events so that they can socialize for breakfast, lunch or dinner after play. Women encourage other women to take up the game of golf. Most amateur women prefer to play with other women, and men certainly would prefer a foursome consisting entirely of men.”

In a best-case scenario, where women maintain power within a newly merged association, there could be more and better women’s tournaments.

“We will continue to have women’s events, and they’ll be done differently than the men do theirs,” said Laura Robinson of the newly merged Colorado association. “We have a registration table, tee gifts, lunch. Who knows, maybe the men are going to start to want those things, too.”

In Northern California, the women aren’t so sure that will work. The PWGA and WGANC united with other women’s golf associations to propose a new Western Golf Association in an appeal to USGA president Diana Murphy. She declined to advocate for them. The other associations now have succumbed, but PWGA and WGANC (as well as New Hampshire) remain unresolved.

Discussions are ongoing with the NCGA, although so far the mostly male organization has rejected the women’s request to subcontract USGA services and remain autonomous.

“So far, there’s not a comfort level that women will be served,” O’Brien said. “We’re still talking. They’re not the bad guy.”

But the women continue to resist a full merger.

“Times may have changed since we were formed in 1947,” O’Brien said. “We existed because women weren’t represented in golf. There weren’t events for women. There weren’t tournaments for women. I’m not confident if we’re gone those same services will be available enough. I think the need for women to have a say in the women’s golf game remains.”

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