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Ladies: What has the golf industry done for us lately?

By Jennifer Mario, Contributor

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - Golf is a perfect sport for women. However, not enough women know it.

Although women's golf goes back a long way, tracing its roots back to the 1500s when avid golfer Mary Queen of Scots helped popularize the game, some women still report that courses don't cater to their needs or make them feel at home. In fact, there's an old saying that golf is actually an acronym for Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden.

But lately, times have changed and golf has become a buyer's market. Faced with a decline in the overall industry, many clubs have had to go to great lengths to bring in more buyers - namely, women.

At last November's Golf 20/20 industry conference, the primary focus was on the need to attract more women. The conference featured keynote speaker Marti Barletta, president of the Chicago-based TrendSight Group and author of the book "Marketing to Women: How to Understand, Reach and Increase Your Share of the World's Largest Market Segment."

Barletta's presentation focused on two ideas: First, that women make 80 percent of the consumer purchasing decisions in this country, and second, that what women look for in a golf experience doesn't necessarily match what men look for.

Apparently, when Barletta talks, people listen. I recently had a chance to talk with John Beckert, CEO of ClubCorp, the Dallas-based parent company for more than 170 golf courses, country clubs and resorts. He was one of several industry leaders who were impressed enough with Barletta's presentation to do something about it. We discussed what ClubCorp has done to capture its share of the female market.

What women want

So what exactly do women want? This question, which has been asked by everyone from Sigmund Freud to Mel Gibson, holds the key that might either make or break a golf club. The first thing Beckert did was to invite Barletta to ClubCorp's annual managers meeting in January to get his people thinking about the answer. Here's what they determined:

Women want family time

To that end, ClubCorp's flagship, Pinehurst Resort in North Carolina, began offering a Family Spree package that includes free lodging, food and golf for kids ages 12 and under, year round, with more deals available in the summer months. And they're currently sinking a significant investment into a new set of facilities on the West Lawn of their Carolina hotel to house their kids' activities.

A similar effort has been made at ClubCorp's country clubs. Besides the usual kids' programming and swimming pools you'll find at most country clubs, some of their clubs even offer a small daycare where moms can drop off their little ones and go play nine holes. Why?

"It's no question that women are (the growing segment of golfers)," Beckert said. "We now understand that whereas maybe 20 years ago the country club decision was the husband's decision based on his golf, today whether one joins a club or more importantly do they stay in the club, it's more often than not going to be the woman's decision.

"A generation ago, on Saturday dad would go do his deal, mom would do her deal and the kids would play in the neighborhood. Well, they're together now. And they're going to do joint activities."

Women want variety

Beckert said that he's well aware that women have differing abilities.

"It's unfair to stereotype all women golfers as being the same," Beckert said. "Some are very competitive and want to play the course in very difficult conditions, others want to play nine holes and have fun and don't want to keep score. One of the things that we're trying to do is create an environment where either extreme or anything in between is OK."

On a recent trip I took to Pinehurst, this theme came up again and again. A group of eight women golfers on an annual golf excursion shared with me their reason for choosing Pinehurst - where else could they have a choice of eight courses? And on six of Pinehurst's eight courses, women also have a choice between two sets of fully rated and sloped tee boxes, something most resorts simply don't offer.

Women want to dress the part

Women have long complained about the limited options they'll find at any given golf shop.

"Women spend far more on golf apparel than men," Beckert said. "And it's funny because with that statistic, which is well known in the industry, you would've thought the merchandisers and the buyers would've caught on long ago, but they haven't. Maybe because it's dominated by a male head golf professional. But most of our country clubs now have a female merchandiser. We've taken the philosophy that if you build it they will come."

Women want to be pampered

Ask a guy on vacation what he'd most like to do after 18 holes and his answer will usually be to proceed on to the 19th. Ask a woman, and she'll likely express a desire to move on to the spa.

Pinehurst opened its $12 million, four-star spa three years ago in an effort to catch this market and since then, it hasn't looked back. And what's good for women is proving to be good for business: Beckert said that since its opening, the resort has seen a 2- to 3-percent increase each year in the number of female visitors, three years running.

ClubCorp isn't the only company in the industry to figure this out. Other top resorts are also tapping into the running stream of income that spas provide.

The five-diamond American Club in the Village of Kohler, Wis., for example, is in the finishing stages of remodeling and expanding its Kohler Waters Spa. The Grove Park Inn in Asheville, N.C., spent $10 million just a few years ago to add its award-winning spa. It's becoming rare to hear of a golf resort without "and Spa" in its name.

If Mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy

And ClubCorp isn't the only company working to bring in more women. Check any golf resort's Web site and you'll see that marketing to women has become de rigueur.

"I think what used to be a huge competitive advantage (for ClubCorp) is today becoming a little more the norm," Beckert said. "Anybody that attends any of the golf industry shows, you're hearing about the changes, more women in golf, the increasing number of courses and the stable demand for golf (and) the need to make it a more player-friendly experience."

As a woman, it's kind of nice to know that someone's fighting over us.

Jennifer MarioJennifer Mario, Contributor

Jennifer Mario is a regular contributor to the TravelGolf Network and the author of "Michelle Wie: The Making of a Champion" (St. Martin's Griffin, 2006). A graduate of Duke University, she lives in the Triangle area of North Carolina with her family.

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