Women Hit the Green to Stay in the Loop

Increasing numbers of them are taking up the game, both for the sheer joy of it and for the business relationships it fosters

Two or three times a week, Janie Bitner is out on the golf course, savoring the joy of walking outdoors and "the exhilarating" feel of executing a sharp shot, she says. Those pleasures aren't the only magnet drawing her to the links: She's also attracted by the prospect of doing business as she plays. "All the guys in my industry take off early to take clients to play golf," says Bitner, 53, an account executive at SunTrust Banks, a commercial banking group in Knoxville, Tenn. "They cut deals on the golf course. And now I'm doing it."

For generations, business-cum-golf has been a male pursuit. But recently, more women have joined in. True, male players still far outnumber females: Only about one-fifth of the 27 million golfers in the U.S. are women, according to the National Golf Foundation, an industry trade group. And these women say they continue to encounter subtle -- and not-so-subtle -- discrimination in the sport. Still, as women have climbed the corporate ladder in recent years, so have they turned to golf to assist them.


  One small indication: Since its start five years ago, the annual 18-hole golf outing for graduates of the Boston-based Simmons Graduate School of Management, which offers an MBA program designed for women, has become the alumnae association's biggest fund-raiser for the program, says Kim Fulton Marchand, president of the group.

Perhaps more telling is the membership roster of the Executive Women's Golf Assn., a Palm Beach Gardens (Fla.) organization that promotes the sport to both neophyte and experienced "career-oriented women golfers." The group's first clinic in 1991 drew 28 players. Today, the association has about 16,000 members.

It isn't hard to figure out why women managers and executives are attracted to the sport. Like their male peers, they've discovered that because golf requires many hours uninterrupted by anything but swinging clubs, it lends itself to schmoozing -- with clients, potential customers, subordinates, influential peers, and well-placed supervisors. "Women in business have long known that golf is a game for networking and relationship building," says Sara Hume, executive director of the Executive Women's Golf Assn. If they were left off the course, she says, women would also "be left out of the loop."


  Indeed, businesswomen who play can readily cite examples of how the sport has given them an edge. Cece Peabody, president of Peabody Advertising in Wayne, N.J., estimates that perhaps 10% of her annual sales arrive via her golfing relationships. Hilary Hartung, director of marketing for Hempstead (N.Y.)-based Education & Assistance Corp., a nonprofit social-service agency, was gratified earlier this year to see a dozen or so of her golfing buddies buying tickets for a fund-raiser held by her employer. Bitner, who began playing about three years ago, recalls the moment on the ninth hole last year when a client she had been cultivating announced the decision to transfer banking business to Bitner's unit. "I went into this "Yeah!" squeal," she says.

To earn such victory whoops, women still say they often have to overcome a number of obstacles. For one thing, they sometimes sense that they are unwanted on golf courses, says Hume. "They can feel it when they look around the pro shop and see nothing but clothing for men," she says. "It leaves the visual impression that women are secondary."

There's also tension on the golf course, as women perceive that male players are silently disdaining their skills. "You get the body language, the raised eyebrows," says Peabody. "They assume that women can't hit the ball to save their souls."


  In some cases, women believe that they've faced overt discrimination. Outside Boston, for example, a group of nine women golfers has been waging a legal battle in state court with the Haverhill Golf & Country Club. In a key 1999 decision, a jury awarded the women $1.9 million after finding that the club had engaged in sex discrimination, in violation of state law, by, among other things, restricting women's access to the course during prime playing times.

Lawrence Murray, a lawyer for the club, says the jury was wrong. "The club's position is that it never occurred," he says, referring to the allegations of restricting women's access. Haverhill is appealing the decision.

Still, the women's lawyer, Marsha Kazarosian, asserts that the club's practices created special hardships for the businesswomen in the group, among them a real estate broker who likes to take clients golfing. "They desperately wanted to get out there," Kazarosian says of the women. "They have associates out there networking, and [they're thinking] 'I'm not able to do that, and the only reason I can't is that I'm female.'"


  Kazarosian believes that discrimination against women on golf courses is still alive and kicking, although less widespread than three or four years ago -- in no small part because the widely reported verdict in the Haverhill case was a warning to country clubs throughout the nation.

More than a few executive women lack interest in the sport and say they've done just fine without it. A case in point is Nancy Mills, an executive vice-president of BroadVision, a software company in Redwood City, Calif. By her own description, she's a lousy golfer. Years ago, when she was a partner at the accounting firm then known as Price Waterhouse, she had to participate in a yearly partners' day golf tournament. She was so bad, she says, that one of her golfing exploits became a legend around the office. At one tournament, in an effort to avoid running over a snake that was crossing her golf cart's path, she veered downhill and ended up in a lake. She survived this and other golf agonies by approaching the outings in a spirit of fun, as did her colleagues.

Women who do enjoy the sport, however, say they have an effective way to deal with those raised eyebrows from male duffers. Cece Peabody advises: "You just block it out -- and hit the hell out of the ball."

By Pamela Mendels in New York

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