NOBLESVILLE, Ind. – The conundrum, as many players and officials associated with the U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur see it, is how to attract players at the younger end of the championship’s eligibility range, between ages 25 and 30.
First-time competitor Mallory Hetzel puts it bluntly: The average for this championship is 42 or 43 years old [actually 43.11]. We need to get that down to 33 or 34. Of the 132 players in this week’s Women’s Mid-Amateur field, 28 will also be competing in next week’s U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur, where the minimum age is 50.
Along with bringing down the average age, those associated with the championship would like to increase the number of entries. Relatively speaking, entries plummeted in 2014, to 349 from 420 the previous year. All agree that younger players are staying away in droves.
Pam Hynes is in her seventh year on the USGA Women’s Mid-Amateur Championship Committee, and she runs a sectional qualifier in her home state of Illinois. She had 25 entries for 2013, and was shocked when only 16 players entered this year, especially with the championship being held in a neighboring state.
I was hoping it would go up to 36 or 37, and I was stunned to see I was down by nine, said Hynes. In talking with my contemporaries around the country, we wondered, how are we going to get this to go the other way? I plan to write a note to each of the eligible players and get a dialogue going on what is preventing them from trying to qualify.
The USGA’s tandem championship, the U.S. Mid-Amateur, is also being conducted this week, at Saucon Valley Country Club in Bethlehem, Pa. Its numbers are down in 2014, too, but the Mid-Amateur still attracted 10 times more entries than the Women’s Mid-Am (3,891, down from 4,239). The average age of its starting field of 264 players (as usual, double the size of the women’s starting field) is 37.08 this year. The Handicap Index® limits are 3.4 for the men, 9.4 for the women and the record entries for each are 5,271 for the men in 1997 and 533 for the women in 2000.
Some of the factors that help to widen the gap between the two championships’ numbers have little to do with golf: While both men and women in their late 20s are trying to gain a career foothold, women may not have comparable financial means to devote to the game. They might also be starting a family or already have young children.
Hetzel, 27, offers a unique perspective as a former elite junior and college player who tried the professional route and is now the women’s golf coach at Western Carolina University. She understands the hurdles that female golfers in their mid-to-late 20s face in finding the time and opportunity to reach – and in some cases, return to – the competitive arena.
We have to ask people, what is holding you back? said Hetzel, who will attempt to qualify for the inaugural U.S. Women’s Amateur Four-Ball on Oct. 1 with Lea Venable. If finances are your problem, we can make it happen. We can get private housing, share a rental car, if that’s what’s holding you back. This is really my championship for the next 20 years; I want it to be here so I can participate and compete.
As Hetzel points out, when the Women’s Mid-Amateur began in 1987, the first beneficiaries of the landmark Title IX ruling were playing, and the championship provided a sought-after competitive outlet. They were settled enough personally, financially and career-wise that they could play a tour-type schedule on the amateur side, she said. That group does not exist anymore.
In their place are veterans of highly competitive college and junior golf programs, players who Hetzel chides to play golf for fun, for once in your life.
I’ve got a group of friends who recently quit the game on the professional level, and they think it’s really cool that I’m doing this, said Hetzel, a four-time Rolex Junior All-American and a two-time All-America player at the University of Georgia who qualified for match play this week before losing in the first round. If each of us could just bring one player in, we’d have 800 entries. But when I ask them about trying to qualify, they tell me, ‘I can’t get out and practice,’ or ‘I was always so competitive; I’m not any good anymore.’
How good is good enough? Hetzel understands all too well the mindset of her contemporaries – she was of that same mindset for much of her career.
We start when we’re little and it’s all a grind to get a scholarship, Hetzel said. And college is so much more competitive now that these kids are burned out. They don’t even want to play golf anymore when they’re done.
There are plenty of cautionary tales about sports and ambition, but Hetzel thinks more needs to be done.
We need to be a little more realistic with our juniors, talking about lives and careers in golf that aren’t professional tour golf, she said. The current generation has only been brought up with competitive golf for a scholarship and for a career. No one preaches this lifestyle that you can have a family and a career and still play the game essentially for the love of it.
Mariko Makabe, 27, of Irvine, Calif., took a two-year break from the game, but found herself reenergized at the Women’s Mid-Amateur, where she reached the second round of match play.
I’m glad that I’m enjoying it now, said Makabe, who played at UC Irvine. I love the competition and the atmosphere. The ladies want to play well and they want to have fun, too. Junior golf is fine, but it just gets too serious. I think it’s a great balance between both here.
Missy Jones, of Phoenix, Ariz., is a U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur committee member who is also the director of the NCAA’s Division I Women’s Western Regional.
There is a whole group of these 25- to 30-year-olds who we’re not reaching, said Jones. Some of them are just starting jobs and it’s hard for them to get the time off.
Jones concurs with Hetzel about resetting the former college players’ collective mindset.
When I ask younger players about it, they say, ‘I’m just so tired,’ said Jones. I tell them, you don’t have to grind and grind. There’s no coach telling you that you have to do this. When they tell me they shoot 80 now, I say, so what? You can still compete out here. There’s competitive golf to be played if you want to.
Hetzel is not alone among younger players returning to competition after growing up with it – this time on their own terms.
Charlotte Daughan, of Orlando, Fla., a four-time Division II player of the year who led Rollins College to four national titles, played in her first Women’s Mid-Amateur this week at age 30.
I played professionally for three years and then took three years off, said Daughan. I think it’s hard when you’re 25 or 30; you are just figuring out what you’re doing from a work standpoint. I tried to qualify last year on a whim – I practiced for about 30 days and didn’t get in. I was so frustrated because I was an alternate.
Daughan, who works in customer relations for GolfNow.com, joined a club and took it seriously. She qualified for the match-play bracket this year and extended defending champion Julia Potter to 17 holes in the Round of 32 before losing.
I want to contend and be one of the top mid-amateurs in the country, said Daughan, who lost in the Florida Women’s Amateur final this summer. I think it’s fair to want to have goals like that. I practice and play when I can. It’s been great.
Some younger players have found a role model in Dawn Woodard, of Greer, S.C., a three-time medalist and two-time quarterfinalist in this championship who earned the No. 2 seed this week before losing in the first round.
I’ve had several kids coming out of college who have talked to me because of the fact that I stayed an amateur, said Woodard, 38, who has competed in 13 Women’s Mid-Ams. I don’t play for anybody else, and I didn’t come out of college thinking I needed to prove to myself that I could play at the next level.
Woodard has won several South Carolina and Carolinas Golf Association championships while juggling family responsibilities. Once I decided that I was going to have a family, that was going to be the most important thing, she said.
Of getting players to return after a hiatus, she said, I think it’s the competition that needs to get them back, not necessarily the golf. I don’t play a lot of golf. [Six-time USGA champion] Ellen Port, she doesn’t play a lot of golf. I feel like sometimes you cram, like for exams, and you realize you can still get it done.
Woodard pointed to the issue of players turning professional, then sitting out a year or more before regaining their amateur status.
It’s so hard to get those players because then what do they do? she said. They can’t play in anything for a year or two, and then you’ve lost that competitive edge. You start having kids and your priorities change and golf’s not everything. In actuality, when golf became not everything, I got better. If I play great, I play great. If I don’t, it’s not the end of the world.
The opportunities begin, as far as Woodard is concerned, with a concerted effort that often involves several people.
I know a bunch of people who say I can’t do it, it’s too much trouble, she said. It is a lot of trouble, but my husband’s so supportive and wants me to be here. Our parents have always helped out, and even our kids. But in order for that picture to come together, there has to be that sacrifice on a lot of people’s parts.
Now entering her sixth year as Western Carolina’s coach, Hetzel returned to amateur competition for an interesting reason.
I did it for my career in coaching, she said. Obviously at this event, I’m not recruiting anyone, but it’s great exposure for our school and program. Recruits also like to see coaches who still play and are still competitive. That’s a feather in my cap.
That’s not to say that Hetzel considers herself the player she was at Georgia, where she played in four NCAA national championships before briefly competing professionally on the Futures Tour.
It is tough sometimes – I grew up as one of the best juniors and one of the best college players in the country, she said. And today [during stroke-play qualifying], I hit a shot… well, I was just speechless. Back in the day, I never would have thought I would hit that shot in a million years. But let’s be realistic – it’s not ‘back in the day.’
Grinding less over shots and lowering expectations doesn’t mean giving up competition, as far as Hetzel is concerned.
Am I as good? No, she said. But I consider this my second competitive golf career. What more could you possibly ask for? What other sports have this, where you can have a fulltime job, have a family, and still compete for a national championship? Golf gives you that.
Ron Driscoll is the manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.