Guest Blog: Why It Took a Global Pandemic For Men And Women To Be Equal On The First Tee

by Laura Upenieks, PhD

Saturday May 16th. The joyous day that Ontario golfers will remember as the day that public health officials deemed it safe enough for golf courses to kick off the 2020 season amidst the COVID-19 global pandemic. By now, social media feeds, local news, and golfers themselves have been saturated with stories, pictures, and discussion about the “new normal” governing golf. If you belong to a golf course, you would have been the recipient of a long, multi-page document explaining what this will look like. At public courses, these rules are generally displayed on the website and/or on a large board situated close to the first tee. The rules are detailed and extensive, and outline new provisions such as larger gaps between tee times to allow for distance between groups, reduced warm-up times, vacation of the property immediately after the round, no double rider carts, and raised cups or the equivalent to prevent hands from reaching in. The list is seemingly endless. But while most attention was directed to these rules (with some visual displays to accompany them), my attention went to one new rule change that has been enacted at some courses (equality does exist at many facilities) across the province of Ontario: “Men’s and Ladies’ League tee restrictions lifted during Phase One.”

As an avid and former collegiate female golfer who also happens to be an academic sociologist, I almost fell off my chair when I read this. Gender norms that advantage men are deeply entrenched in the sport of golf—from the state and quality of locker rooms, to access to the tee, and most troubling of all, to unfettered assumptions about women’s lower ability level and slower pace of play, men hold a strangling grip over daily golf course operations.

A few years ago, I wrote a letter in support of a committee at a Greater Toronto Area club that was dealing with unfair access to the tee between men and women. While Men’s League was always proposed as a period of four hours on Wednesday afternoon where men have exclusive access to the tee, it has since evolved into an all-day affair, with solid foursomes of men populating the tee sheet every single week. In short, the committee’s proposal to loosen the restrictions were met with outrage (despite statistical evidence to support the conclusion of women’s unfair access), and it was almost immediately shot down. So you can imagine my surprise when I saw this “new” rule was part of the opening of golf season. 

A Silver Lining?

If there is a silver lining to the seemingly irreparable damage the COVID-19 pandemic and its accompanying lockdown measures have caused (and to be sure, we will be dealing with the fallout of the latter for years to come), the move towards gender equality in access to the first tee would be at the top of my list. Was it an intended consequence of the new provisions? Probably not. But these days, we’ll take what we can get!

In a time where large gatherings and tournaments are not feasible, golf courses cannot safely organize league play of this sort. That is more than likely the reason for the implementation of this rule. I’m almost certain the conversation among club board members was not, “How can we make things fair for both men and women in our return to golf?” If it was allowed within provincial guidelines, I’m sure the first move of many clubs would be restarting Men’s League, followed closely by initial planning for the two-day men’s member guest. But mother nature rained on these plans, and so we are left, ironically, with men and women, perhaps for the first time ever, on equal grounds when it comes to accessing the links. 

It seems a sad state of affairs that a global pandemic that may claim over half a million lives worldwide and has already caused unprecedented economic devastation and personal hardship was the impetus needed for (unintentional) gender equalization in golf. But perhaps the overarching takeaway message is that we don’t have to return to the male dominated status quo once this is “all over.” In fact, if the golf community learns anything from this pandemic and the laborious process of re-opening golf courses, let it be this: golf is, in its absolute purest form, about hitting your ball, finding it, and hitting it again. It is about the joy of a purely struck shot, and the challenge of recovering from an, umm, less purely struck one. It is about playing against the golf course and battling the elements. And it is about camaraderie and encouraging playing partners to keep pressing on and striving to achieve personal bests in spite of all that transpires. Should this not be something both genders have access to equally? Should it not be about the purity of the game and less about the pomp, circumstance, and quite frankly, blatant sexism that exists when men have double the number of tournament days and one day of exclusive access to the tee each week compared to women? If we believe the answers to these two questions are yes, then perhaps the pandemic has taught us a very valuable lesson: the status quo in golf can be challenged, and golf can exist (and even accomplish its main objectives!) without the exclusion of women.

Now, I am not naïve enough to think our current state of affairs in the golf world will last. Any attempt to make this the status quo going forward will almost assuredly be met with stubbornness and reluctance. Eventually leagues and tournaments will resume, and more likely than not, we’ll revert back to the same old nonsense, where women pay the same fees and have one day less access to the tee each week than men. But the COVID-19 pandemic shows us that it doesn’t have to be this way; we can achieve gender equality in access to golf with absolutely no extra work on anyone’s part. And I, for one, hold out a small, perhaps miniscule, glimmer of hope that the powers that be will learn from this experience, and that we as a golf community will continue to pursue gender equality not just on the first tee, but in all aspects of this beautiful game. 

Author Bio: Dr. Laura Upenieks holds a PhD in Sociology (University of Toronto, 2019). She is currently an Assistant Professor at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Dr. Upenieks had a 10-year varsity career while at the University of Toronto, and won 8 team conference championships, 23 collegiate tournaments as an individual, and qualified to represent Team Canada at the World University Games in 2017.

Dr. Upenieks teaches university courses in medical sociology, sociological theory, aging and the life course, and the sociology of sport. Her main research interests lie at the intersection of religion, health, and the life course, and she has amassed more than 20 peer-reviewed academic publications to date.

You can follow her on Twitter @LauraUpenieks

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