A former soccer player seeks a new competitive outlet.
My dad loved to tell people about the first time he took me to play golf on a real course. It was the par-3 course at Percy Warner Park in Nashville, Tennessee, my hometown. I was around 10. He swears I landed the ball on the green with my first drive. If that’s true, it’s the highlight of my golf career.
Dad and I had an imperfect relationship. He and my mom divorced when I was young, but I spent Tuesdays and every other weekend with him. He was a charmer, a great dancer and a sports fanatic with a temper that he passed on to me. He was old-school when it came to domestic duties—something I grew to resent. Despite that, he really embraced my athletic ability, teaching me to play tennis, softball and golf. He bought me golf clubs and lessons when I was 10 or 11, possibly envisioning the next Nancy Lopez. Over the years, if I felt we had nothing to talk about, we could always talk about sports.
He died a couple of years ago, and I’m always reminded of him when I’m playing golf. There are the Vanderbilt University-branded golf balls he gave me; from time to time, I’ll pull one from my bag only to put it back, not wanting it to end up in the bottom of some algae-choked pond.Like what you’re reading? Subscribe to our weekly newsletters.
When I have a club in hand, I still think about how he instructed me to hold it: like gripping a delicate baby bird. We worked a lot on putting and the concept of touch around the greens. When the ball was on a challenging slope, he drilled into my muscle memory the idea of painting an arched rainbow on the green from the putter to the cup. So, yes, one reason I golf is because it keeps me connected to the best parts of my dad.
As a kid, however, I found golf boring. On Sundays, it’s what we sat around watching on TV while I gobbled Pepperidge Farm Goldfish. I rarely saw women playing but could name all the top men’s players—Tom Watson, Payne Stewart, Seve Ballesteros. More objectionable was this: In golf, you didn’t get to run, jump, slide or kick anything. Instead, I chose a sport where it was OK to do all those things. A sport that, at the time, had scant professional prospects: soccer. (I’m overjoyed to see that has changed, but also, #PayTheWomen.)
I loved the rough-and-tumble of soccer, the chance to be creative with the ball at your feet, the team camaraderie, the uncontainable joy of scoring a goal and the feeling of getting stuck-in with a great slide tackle.
But when you’re around 10 years old and falling in love with soccer, you don’t think about the state of your ankles and knees after 40. You don’t think about showing up on Monday to your 9-to-5 job in a walking boot from playing rec league soccer the day before. You never envision that, after heading a lot of balls in your day, you might ponder donating your brain for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) research. Hoping to hang on to my intact ACLs—knock on wood—I hung up my cleats at 40 after about 34 years of playing, including four years of college soccer.
The thing is, it’s hard to step away from an identity as an athlete after so many years. I needed a soccer retirement plan. So I turned to something that happens to be plentiful in Central Ohio, something that Dad taught me: golf.
I choose to play golf even though it’s still very much a boys’ club. Or maybe I play because of it—like I’m 12 again, playing on an all-boys soccer team with something to prove. Although most golfers are very polite, the fact is that I’m repeatedly reminded of my gender on the course. Sometimes it feels like being a prized species in a zoo, like the only giant panda. “We are so happy you are here,” older gentlemen who work the courses will say to me. It’s sweet, but awkward.
According to the National Golf Foundation, only 24 percent of golfers who play on a course are women. To increase participation, the LPGA Women’s Network and We Are Golf’s Women’s Task Force launched a new initiative last year called #InviteHer, which encourages current golfers, men and women alike, to personally invite prospective women golfers for a round—a great idea.
About 10 years ago, my former boss at The Columbus Dispatch, Louann Johnson, did just that—she invited me to go out and play. It was the nudge I needed, and a few years later I got my boyfriend (now fiancé) into the game.
“Do you always play from the white tees?”
It’s a question I often get from strangers when my fiancé and I play, one loaded with confusion, wonder and likely a dose of sexism. The white tees are typically viewed as the “men’s tees.” The “women’s tees” are the forward tees, located yards closer to the hole and oftentimes past the “fun stuff” like bodies of water. They are almost invariably painted red. I can’t help but wonder why.
I started playing from the white tees as a practical matter. My fiancé was a beginner at the time and would play from the white tees with his guy friends. I’d been playing golf longer, so I would join them at the “men’s tees” as well. It made us more competitive. It was also more convenient, so even now that his game is strong, I’ve continued to play from the same tees. I can drive the ball pretty well, so why should we stop at another tee box? A less “fun” tee box?
Sometimes, I’ll tee off in front of strangers (let’s be real, it’s invariably men), and I’m struck by just how low the expectations are. If my ball just catches some air and goes straight down the fairway, I’ll receive almost absurd accolades: “Woooow!” and “You’re in trouble, buddy,” nodding to my fiancé. I’d be content with a simple “nice drive,” like everyone else.
But we women golfers don’t have all the advantages. Unlike our male counterparts, we can’t relieve ourselves, well, just about anywhere. Recently, my fiancé and I were paired on a round with two male golfers. Around the sixth hole, one asked me, while pointing at the trees, “Do you mind if I use the restroom?” That’s considerate, I thought. “Go ahead, I’m used to it,” I said, because I am. “Cool, I wasn’t sure what kind of female we were working with today,” he quipped.
“A good walk spoiled” doesn’t begin to describe me on a golf course some days—it’s more like the entire day is ruined if I hit too many 5-irons into the water. I’m an emotional athlete, prone to outbursts, and young children should never watch me play (sorry, Mom). Although I love the game, it’s maddening; there are times on the golf course when I probably look like the world is ending.
My friend and mentor, Louann, is the opposite. I see her on the course, 20 years older than me, navigating the fairways with the same poise and calm she’s wielded over a long career in the male-dominated industries of IT and media.
After playing golf with Louann, I can picture my possible future self: someone who finds joy in the game whether she’s knocking down birdies, shrugging off dumb comments or fishing errant balls out of a pond. To get there, I probably need to follow Louann’s lead and play the game with the kind of patience and serenity that have never been my strength. Even when I’m ready to throw my club up a tree, rather than white-knuckle that baby bird in my hand, I will need to hold it lovingly, breathe, and then—boom—smack the ball onto the green in one try. Just like the first time.
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