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Student Contribution: 'An ethnographic study of gender influences on social behaviour of members at a private golf club'

Peter A. Shotton, Dr. Kathleen M. Armour & Paul Potrac

Brunel University, England


The objective of this study was to utilise ethnographic research techniques to gain an understanding of the ways in which gender issues are in evidence in the day-to-day activities of a private golf club . In particular, this study aimed to investigate whether and how gender issues were a part of the experience of being a member at the golf club. In this context, Hargreaves (1994) found that:

Most golf clubs were private clubs where women were denied full membership, had no voting power, had limited access to club facilities, had much less playing time than men and were usually barred from weekend play and local tournaments (p.126).

However, studies of gender influences on social behaviour in golf, and particularly in golf clubs, are scarce. Hargreaves (1994), believes that there is a definite need for extensive, ethnographic research that investigates, in detail, 'how gender relations cohere with the other features of the broader social context' (p.11). An ethnographic approach was chosen for this study because it has the potential to provide a descriptive, interpretive, evaluative and potentially authentic vision of society (Hammersley & Atkinson, 1995). Golf clubs can be viewed as particularly interesting social research settings, given their history of institutionalised discrimination against women, and the tendency towards male glorification (Wilkins, 1997).

Summary of Review of Literature

'Gender' draws attention to, 'the nature of the social relationship between men and women and implies that status and social position are culturally constructed' (Parratt, 1994, p.10). Kidd (1987) argues that males currently have access to more than twice the opportunities and public resources available for sport and, more significantly, the males that control sport demonstrate little intention to redress this imbalance. Thus, sport is predominantly a male-orientated world because (a) most sports were invented by men for men (Boutilier & SanGiovanni, 1983); (b) Professional team sports, which tend to serve as the model for youth and school sport, consist primarily of men (Coakley, 1990); (c) only one third of the athletes at the high school and college levels are female (Birrell, 1987); and (d) men hold most leadership and coaching positions (Acosta & Carpenter, 1988). It would appear, therefore, that the socially constructed barriers that inhibit female participation form the basis of oppressive gender relations in sport. In the context of golf clubs, Kennedy (1997) claims, 'Since 1979 there has been a fifty percent increase in the number of female golfers affiliated to clubs in the UK, to approximately 220,000' (p.35). This increase has prompted a more in-depth investigation of women's golf in local clubs and at professional level.

European golfer Seve Ballesteros (1980) is one of many who openly dismiss the women's game. In uncompromising form, he declared,

You women want equality, but you'll never get it because women are inferior to men in all sorts of ways - physically, intellectually and morally. There are exceptions, but on the whole women are inferior to men (cited in Mott, 1996)

Mott (1996) claimed that golf clubs were the last bastions of retreating chauvinism, suggesting that golfing women are treated as a sub-species and that reference to them as 'ladies' is patronising. Hopkins (1997) argues that women have suffered in golf because they have been forced to play with inappropriate equipment for their build, strength, level and swing speed. Despite these restrictions, Kennedy (1997) reveals that the recent surge in female participation in golf is due to an increased awareness of golf club managers of career women with a disposable income who are happy to pay the same subscriptions as the men and expect equal rights both out on the course and in the clubhouse (p.72).

At the professional level, the Women's European Professional Tour has been the source of critical scrutiny over the last decade. Henderson (1997) charts the relative failure of the Women Professional Golfer's European Tour (WPGET), noting, for example, that sponsors such as American Express have withdrawn their capital because the women's tour is less successful and attractive than the men's tour. Suggested reasons for this include a lack of female professionals, limited tournaments, too few sponsors and inadequate prize funds (Henderson, 1997). Terry Coates, chief executive of the WPGET (1997), admits that the perception of women as an inferior body of golfers is 'a cultural barrier that has to be climbed' (p.26). Pitt (1997), argues that professional women's golf in Europe should be prosperous due to success in the 1992 Solheim cup and the 'breakthrough of many players into world class' (p.14) but the gradual collapse of the women's tour is a sad reflection of the influence of gender differences in sport today (Pitt, 1997, p.14).

Research which focuses specifically upon gender relations in golf clubs points to some contradictions. A survey carried out by Fore! magazine (Aug. 1997), questioned 1,000 men aged 25 to 45 regarding women's golf, and results show that only 9 percent of respondents thought that women and golf were incompatible. Hamblin (editor for the magazine) commented that,

Golf has this reputation for being totally stupid and boring, where women aren't even allowed to walk in front of the clubhouse windows. This survey shows that male golfers believe golf is a social thing for both sexes. (p.34)

On the other hand, many golf clubs uphold historical restrictions regarding women golfers, despite this indication of the changing attitude of men. For example, Gill, (1994) found that there are many existing golf clubs that forbid female entrants, and that have committees with the precise purpose of restricting female participation. In an interesting parallel, a study of Wirral Ladies' Golf Club, near Birkenhead, by Jenkins (1997) revealed that, until recently, the men at the club, totaling around 190, have been denied a say in the club's affairs, despite paying equal fees. Furthermore, the women are in favour of a gender division which upholds the specific gender traditions of the club.

Changes in the law aimed at giving women the same rights as men in private golf clubs, are being planned by the Government (Syal & Welsh, 1997). Current laws on equality and sex discrimination do not include privately run establishments such as golf clubs and the Equal Opportunities Commission, responsible for the radical changes, will attempt to outlaw discriminatory practices. Syal and Welsh (1997) state 'It may help to wake up some of the men to the fact that we can play golf as well and have the right to have a say in our own clubs' (p.16).

Brief methodological comments

Sparkes (1992) argues that

The interpretative paradigm seeks explanation within the realm of individual consciousness and subjectivity, within the frame of reference of the participant as opposed to the observer of action' (p.26).

Using an ethnographic research technique, within an interpretive framework, this study sought to understand gender relations in a private golf club from the perspective of the members themselves. Using interviews and observation, the research was carried out continuously over a period of five full days at a private golf club. The structure of each day was determined by the schedule of the club. During general observations in the club, any actions, behaviours or incidents that were deemed to be linked to gender were noted. Wherever possible, the researcher's interpretation of the issue was discussed with the respondents at the time or soon after the observation. At the end of each day, the field notes were completed, and the interview tapes categorised. The data, in the form of fieldnotes and interview transcripts, were analysed in several methodical stages as suggested by Marshall and Rossman (1989). Having developed categories and established themes, the data were interpreted using the analytic narrative (Thomas & Nelson, 1996).

The research setting: Club profile.

The case-study golf club opened in 1935 and is situated in England. It has approximately 550 full, golf playing members and around 30 social members. Of the 550 full members, 400 are male and 150 are female. Apart from the senior section, there are also veteran and junior divisions for the men. The women have a separate section. The club is a proprietor's establishment, which means that it is owned by a private company. The structure comprises a management team, which administers the club's business duties, and a separate, voluntary committee that controls the provision of golf for the members of the club.

Summary of findings

Five themes were identified from the mass of raw data:

(a) attitudes towards participation,
(b) social interaction and communication,
(c) organisation and compliance with rules and regulations,
(d) age, and
(e) inferiority.

These themes are discussed in turn and supported using extracts from field notes and comments made during the interviews.

Attitudes Towards Participation

Members gave a multitude of reasons for playing golf and this was reflected in their behaviour within the clubhouse. A group of four men was observed standing against the bar, discussing the round of golf they had just completed, over several pints of ale. Their detailed discussion made it clear that they desperately wanted to win the club monthly medal, and were determined to explain why they had not. During an interview on another occasion, a female player commented that, 'men are far more competitive than women on the course. That is a fact'. Many more female players reiterated this view during the study, suggesting that men place greater emphasis on improving their personal skill level and achieving success. One female player commented, 'The atmosphere during women's competitions is very light-hearted because all the women want is to have fun and enjoy each other's company'. This player closely echoes the view expressed in Hargreaves (1994) study which found that 'whereas men tend to take sports seriously, women are able to laugh at themselves and enjoy the experience' (p.266).

Social Interaction and Communication

According to the club secretary, the club prevents or overcomes any instances of racial, sexual or age discrimination by creating an atmosphere that is both friendly and relaxed. During an interview with the men's secretary, the following response was given:

Interviewer: What kind of atmosphere is this club trying to create?
Secretary: We pride ourselves on being a friendly club with very little animosity. If everyone is catered for, and the member's interests are at the top of the list, then everyone is happy. And that spreads warmth throughout the club.

There were many examples of, what certainly appeared to be, friendly banter between the sexes, around gender-based issues. According to one male player, the women are respected for their status as club members and the social interaction between sexes has created a good rapport. Previous research has noted that many clubs establish separate sections and facilities for men and women to prevent social integration (Vertinsky, 1994; Jenkins, 1997). However, there was no evidence of that at this club.

Organisation and Compliance with Rules and Regulations.

Some of the men demonstrated a reluctance to observe club rules and regulations. On several occasions, male members had to be reminded by members of staff that (a) hats are not to be worn inside the clubhouse, and (b) spiked golf shoes are not to be worn in the lounge area. The women, however, were always seen to abide by the rules and were dressed appropriately without exception. This was also reflected in two committee meetings observed. The women's meeting was highly structured, methodical, formal and extensive, whereas the men's meeting was very informal, loosely structured and short. A male committee member commented that official meetings tend to create or magnify problems that are insignificant, so an informal style is adopted to prevent any such complications from arising. A female member on the other hand, believed that in order for the women's section to run efficiently, regular meetings that addressed both successes and difficulties were imperative. The difference between the way the two groups worked could not have been more marked. It also raises an interesting paradox - despite being in the minority, being 'less competitive' and confessing to being largely social golfers, the women were clearly more organised, precise, disciplined and diligent than the men.


During an interview with the club manageress, it was discovered that the youngest female member in the club is thirty-eight years old. It was also confirmed that there is no female junior section at the club. A large percentage of the women's section are married and between the ages of 45 and 55 years. The men's section however, consists of three divisions: junior, senior and veteran and male members range from school boys to professionals and retired pensioners. According to several players, many women at the club were introduced to golf by their partners or husbands and so took up the sport at a later stage in life when family commitments were reduced. When questioned about the lack of young women golfers at the club, one female member replied that,

Girls are only introduced to team sports when they are school. Golf has not been a young girl's sport in the past. Boys on the other hand are introduced to far more sports at a young age and are taught by their fathers to play golf. Therefore, many women only begin to play golf after they have matured and usually when their husbands or boyfriends play.

Hopkins (1997), blames poor marketing and advertising of the women's game for the failure of the Women's Professional Tour and consequently low female participation in clubs. Consequently, Johnson (1997), states that in order for women's golf to grow the product itself has to be marketed and sold better; not enough is being done to promote the game for women. There was certainly little evidence of the club going out of its way to attract more female players.


Some of the members suggested that, at times, female players exhibit signs of nervous tension on the course, especially when playing in mixed events with the men. According to one male player, women often feel inferior when playing with men because of their lack of power and length off the tee. The following extract from field notes illustrates the issue:

Once again members are gathered in the bar having played in a mixed competition (teams consisted of two men and two women). The atmosphere is jovial and most of the members seem relaxed and contented, irrespective of how they had performed on the course. However, two women seem less than cheerful and their solemn behaviour merits further examination. One of the women proceeds to apologise to her respective male partner for her poor performance and dismal score. He laughs and dismisses her apologies, remarking that everyone has bad games and she need not worry. The women agreed to be interviewed and the following exchange took place;

Interviewer: What are you feeling at the moment?

Respondent :I feel a bit disappointed because of the way I played and I feel a bit embarrassed. Both men in our team scored well and hit the ball well. I couldn't compete with them and at times I felt silly. At several holes, I picked my ball up because I was so far behind and had no chance of making a score.

The club professional also noted that some women get tense during mixed events, and he felt that it was because they feel inferior to most male players. He explained that there is a stigma attached to women's golf that defines it as, 'Slow, Short and Shabby', and that the women are fully conscious of this stigma. Willis (1982), explains that women feel inferior to men irrespective of circumstances because:

The fact that no one can deny female differences becomes the fact of female sports inferiority, becomes the fact that females are innately different from men, becomes the fact that women who stray across the defining boundary are in a parlous state. An ideological view comes to be deposited in our culture as a common sense assumption - of course women are different and inferior (p.130).

It would appear that many club members recognised differences between the ways in which male and female members approached both the playing of golf, and the social side of the club. The women showed greater respect for rules and regulations, paid greater attention to etiquette, were distinctly more organised during committee meetings and formal events than the men, and appeared to value the social benefits of golf more than skill acquisition or victory. The men, according to many of the club members, were more overtly competitive and placed greater value on winning and improving skill level than the women. Within the clubhouse, there was evidence of friendly and relaxed social interaction and communication between genders. However, there were very few female members compared to male members, and more of the female players were older - the club didn't even have a junior section for girls. So, although few members identified gender-based issues as problematic, and the club secretary felt that his strategies would ensure that 'everyone is happy', it is clear that the weight of discrimination against women in sport, and in golf in particular, was an ever-present - albeit not overt - feature of life at the club.


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