By Keridwen Cornelius / Photos by Pablo Robles
When Cori Matheson was a young girl, golfers were stereotyped as gray-haired businessmen who smoked stogies between shots. So when the 12-year-old told her dad she wanted to play golf, he was shocked. He’d taken her out on the course several times, but she’d always just ridden in the cart. It never occurred to him a girl would want to pick up a club.
Matheson took her first lesson with Kathy Knadler, then-director of Girls Golf of Phoenix. She began participating in Girls Golf events and watched Knadler inspire young girls to pursue the sport. “I just got hooked,” says Matheson, now 35. “I said, ‘Kathy, you have the best job ever. I can’t wait [to do it]. One day, call me.’ And about 20 years later she called me and said, ‘Are you ready to take my job?’”
Today, Matheson directs the nonprofit, inspiring a new generation of 3- to 18-year-olds through welcoming tournaments and guided practices. Since its founding in 1989, the organization has gained two major sponsors, changed its name to LPGA USGA Girls Golf, and expanded to more than 500 independently managed sites around the world. It’s a sign of the changing face of golf.
In some ways, golf is in the rough, with memberships declining and courses going to the weeds worldwide. Yet between 2011 and 2016, junior golf participation rose 20 percent, and a record-high 33 percent of those players are girls, according to the 2016 U.S. Golf Economy Report.
From junior clinics to scholarship-supported college teams to the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA), the golf scene for girls and women is “really strong. I would say in the last couple of years it’s gotten even stronger,” says Bronte Law, an English LPGA tour pro who recently moved to Scottsdale. As for the LPGA tour, Law adds, “I would say it’s probably at its peak right now.”
Matheson has a theory about the upswing in girls’ golf. In the 1990s, the nation was gripped by Tiger Woods fever. Suddenly, golf became super-cool among a diverse population, including girls and people of color. A new generation picked up the game. They put their clubs aside while they had babies, but now that their kids are older, they’re introducing them to the sport and playing alongside them. “They’re coming back because they loved it, because of what the game of golf did for them,” Matheson says.
Golf sculpts certain characteristics that are unique to the sport. “The difference with golf is it’s an individual sport,” Matheson says. “So you’re relying on yourself, you’re having to build your own game and you’re competing against just the course. That’s what we try to teach the girls is they’re not competing against the other girls. They’re trying to do the best they can do.”
Golf has a strong culture of integrity, Matheson adds. If you flub a shot while no one is looking or accidentally sign an incorrect scorecard, it is your responsibility to call yourself out and accept the consequences. Similarly, Law says, “there’s a certain etiquette in golf that I think is really valuable, whether you choose to be a golfer or want to go into business.”
Considerateness is key: You must pay close attention to your fellow players to ensure you do not move, make noise, or stand behind them while they’re hitting. You must rake the sand traps and repair divots and ball marks to ensure the course is fair for everyone playing behind you. If you’re competing seriously, golf also requires perseverance, intermittent focus akin to mindfulness, and unwavering positivity in the wake of inevitable disaster.
But for most golfers, the biggest benefit is social. “[The girls’] favorite thing about it is that they get to do it with friends,” Matheson says. “And honestly I’ve had parents tell me the only time they get to spend with their daughter without her being on her phone or her iPad is when they’re on the golf course. It’s a game that all ages can play together and build relationships.”
The family atmosphere extends beyond the nuclear family. March 19-24, the Bank of Hope Founders Cup – Arizona’s only LPGA tournament – will be played at Wildfire Golf Club at JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort in Scottsdale. This special event celebrates the 13 women who started the LPGA in 1950, so there’s a multigenerational, communal feel in the air. “We try to make it as inviting as possible,” tournament director Scott Wood says. “Our athletes are some of the most approachable in sport. We consider ourselves an LPGA family, and [this is] the ultimate family golf experience.”
Part of the proceeds go toward LPGA USGA Girls Golf, so the girls get to tend the flagsticks on the last day, high-five the players and sometimes go inside the ropes and walk alongside them. The three remaining LPGA founders – one of whom lives in Goodyear – even come out to talk with the pros and young girls. “They really are some of the most motivating and inspirational women I’ve ever been around,” Wood says.
So if you’re worried golf is too elitist or difficult or male-dominated, “don’t hide your child from that opportunity,” Matheson says. “You don’t have to be an expert. They don’t need equipment. They don’t even need to know what to wear. That’s what I think girls’ golf is really good at. Parents are really welcoming, and our family is really welcoming. Just go do it.”
For more information, visit girlsgolfofphoenix.org and lpgafounderscup.com.