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Women encounter a "grass ceiling" in golf

As a top executive with Motorola, Dell Computers and AT&T, Maureen Grzelakowski spent years learning how to build a network of colleagues and clients by keeping her head down, her left arm straight and swinging through the ball.

In spite of her prowess on the golf course, Grzelakowski felt frustrated by the common and persistent clubhouse rules that exclude women from grillrooms, member-guest tournaments and Saturday-morning tee times. Last spring she solved the problem by purchasing her own nine-hole course in the southwest suburbs.

"Joining a course locally wasn't going to meet my needs," the 48-year-old Clarendon Hills, Ill., resident said. "So I bought one, and I can golf whenever I want."

Grzelakowski's unusual move reflects the larger issues at stake in the controversy over the unstated male-only membership policy of Augusta National Golf Club, home of the annual Masters tournament.

A Chicago Tribune analysis has found that formal barriers to female membership at some private golf and country clubs in the Chicago area are beginning to fall. But beyond the clubs' written rules, more subtle social forces are discouraging women golfers from joining the elite world of executive golf.

Though women golfers are highly organized - executive women have their own golf association that claims 17,000 members and more than 100 chapters across North America - their numbers continue to be dwarfed by men.

Further, their commitment often is questioned. They are said to quit at a higher rate, and some suspect that even if every private club eliminated all sex barriers, only a handful of women would queue up for the five- and six-figure initiation fees and steep dues at the top courses.

"There's a lot of noise but not a lot of demand," said Vince Solano, who last year opened the male-only Black Sheep Golf Club in Sugar Grove, near Aurora. "Most clubs have changed their bylaws, but the women aren't coming in."

`Microcosm of society'

Though women represent 24 percent of adult golfers who play at least one round a year--6.1 million, according to the National Golf Foundation_they account for a smaller portion of avid participants. More than half play seven times a year or less, and their average annual spending in the sport lags behind that of their male counterparts.

For corporate up-and-comers who happen to be female, the price is paid in lost opportunity, according to business experts and some of the executives themselves.

"You can be successful without knowing how to golf," said Grzelakowski, "but it's much more difficult."

Contrary to the stereotype of fat cats signing contracts on the 18th green, golf's main business purpose is building the relationships that lead to sales prospects and career advancement. Its effectiveness is reflected in enormous spending, with companies and their managers shelling out billions of dollars annually to sponsor tournaments, entertain clients and frequent the top clubs, market research shows.

It's a matter of being part of the "in" crowd at the office, and the friction that women encounter contributes to what pundits have dubbed a "grass" ceiling.

"Just look at the small number of CEO women," said Judith Rogala, 61, a veteran executive and avid golfer who most recently served as chief executive of the La Petite Academy early-childhood education chain based in Chicago. "Golf is a microcosm of our society. Sometimes you feel you don't belong."

Bonding on the links

On the links, trust is developed and guards are let down, character judgments made and collegiality assessed, said Michael Mokwa, sports business professor at Arizona State University.

"Feelings of reciprocity, doing something for someone else, come into play," he said. "The bonding that's so important in business takes place."

The atmosphere encourages risk-taking as well. The unhealthy relationships between the failed Enron Corp. and its go-along accounting firm, Arthur Andersen, were forged in part on some of the finest fairways in North America.

Texans were so eager to network with the energy company during its boom years that Andersen's David Duncan and Enron's Richard Causey had to turn golfers away from the $2,500-a-head charity tournament they co-sponsored.

"The environment allows you to build relationships for better or for worse," Mokwa said. "Some people just say things they would never say in a more formal business setting."


`One of the guys'

To participate fully in the executive ranks, women need to be included, he added.

"Women who bring some golf savvy - at least a moderately skilled game and the ability to keep pace - they can blend in incredibly well," he said.

Grzelakowski recalls golfing on the French coast with the chief executive of a South African telecommunications company. Worried about losing business to the athletic woman from Schaumburg, a senior executive at rival Siemens AG who didn't know how to golf volunteered to caddie.

In the end, Motorola and Siemens wound up splitting the South African account, and her competitor's stunt earned Grzelakowski's admiration.

"He understood the importance of connecting with your customer," she said.

Of course, so does she. And in Grzelakowski's case, it probably doesn't hurt that she hits the ball a mile.

"The better the golfer you were, the greater the potential for gaining respect in the business world," she said. "It helped me become one of the guys."

The issue of unequal treatment for women in the nation's golf clubs has come to the forefront only over the last decade as female executives have become increasingly common. Augusta has for months fought a public-relations battle against activists who want women members admitted.

Hurdles to clear

Around Chicago, some clubs have left their traditional rules intact even as others are slowly evolving, eliminating regulations such as the once-common rule barring women from the courses on weekend mornings_the choice hours for those working full time.

Though that particular hurdle clearly weighs against working women, it isn't the only one. Rogala recalls joining a Memphis club in 1987, when she held a senior post at a company, Federal Express, that encouraged her to get serious about golf.

"I was relegated to playing on Spouses' Day during the workweek, even though I was the primary member," she said. "A 7-year-old boy was allowed to go into the men's grill and I wasn't. You didn't have a place to go sit and firm up the deal. They didn't know what to do with me."

In those days, just getting invited to join executive foursomes represented a career milestone.

When her male teammates from a coed softball league at AT&T started inviting her to golf 20 years ago, it was viewed as "an unnatural act," said Grzelakowski, a consultant who with her father now operates Oak Hills Country Club, a daily-fee course in Palos Heights. "It's one of the natural buddy-buddy things men do together, and you're not one of the buddies."

To a degree, nothing has changed, she added. "I'm not sure many women get that opportunity," she said.

Rogala and Grzelakowski worked at companies that made golf a focus of their marketing and sales efforts, and both say they reaped substantial rewards for sticking with the game. Yet they recognize that many women find the corporate emphasis on golf daunting, and not just because of country-club rules.


Male-culture factor

Even though the potential business benefits are widely recognized, "very few women get good enough to feel comfortable golfing with a client," Grzelakowski said.

Some blame the male culture of golf, describing the Augusta controversy as a skirmish in a much wider war of the sexes.

The assertions are heard wherever golfers gather: Women are way too slow. Men cheat too much and constantly gamble. Women congregate on the course to discuss every shot. Men can't stand losing to women. One sex is viewed as inept, the other as condescending.

How much of this is idle chatter and how much is reality? To be sure, perceptions can be exaggerated.

But Betty Kaufmann, who coaches the men's golf team at DePaul University and teaches clinics for women, said learning the game is different for both sexes.

"Guys can muscle the ball without embarrassing themselves," she said. "Women are not as strong in the hands and arms, so it's harder for them."

A booming industry has emerged to help ease the path of professional women toward success on the links. Virtually all the products and services rest on the assumption that women approach the game differently.

"Women are insecure about whether they know the rules, the etiquette and the culture," golf industry consultant Nancy Berkley said. "Men want to smack the ball."

The distinction is reflected in a story Grzelakowski loves telling about a gung-ho Motorola subordinate, eager to golf with clients despite his status as a rank beginner. He let a $400 Callaway driver fly out of his hands on the first tee.

"That's when I had to take him aside and tell him, `You're a caddie,"" she said. "Women tend to care more about fundamentals."


A niche industry

Women-only golf clinics have become a fixture across the country, and women golfers have written a shelfload of books expressly for other women, with titles ranging from "Venus on the Fairway" to "Feeling Naked on the First Tee."

Manufacturers have recognized the opportunity as well, producing apparel, shoes, clubs, bags and other paraphernalia designed specifically for women, instead of just pastel versions of the men's items.

One of the new hot golf balls is the Precept MC Lady. Its promise of "explosive distance with a soft feel" appeals to both sexes, but its brand name presents a marketing challenge. "There were stories of men crossing out the `Lady' logo after they bought the ball," noted Tom Stine of the Golf Datatech market research firm.

Still, the vast corporate spending on golf is largely a result of the overwhelmingly male makeup of big-business leadership. "There has to be a correlation there," said Richard Lapchick, who heads the DeVos Sport Business Management Program at the University of Central Florida.

Golf tournaments attract about $855 million in corporate sponsorship dollars, according to Chicago's IEG Inc. Ad spending on televised golf events amounts to $556 million more, according to Competitive Media Reporting.

The biggest spending comes in the murky realm of travel and entertainment - the expense accounts that grease the wheels of capitalism.

Uncle Sam helps foot the bill. From setting up the party tents to tipping the caddies, outings with clients are generally deductible as legitimate business expenses, said John Barsella, tax partner at Blackman Kallick Bartelstein LLP.

The best available estimate pegs spending on goods and services related to golf at $62.2 billion as of 2000, with business funding a sizable share. That figure, from SRI International, includes $38.7 billion for golf-facility operations, golf-course capital investment, golfer supplies, media, tournaments, charities and associations.

The game's global reach is part of the appeal for corporations. The sport is so popular in Japan that during the booming 1980s initiation fees at the top golf clubs soared above $500,000 and business outings ran $1,000 per person and up.

The corporate league

U.S. companies play in the same league. When Motorola entertained its best customers during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, it made a golf resort on Hilton Head Island its home base, flying its VIPs to the games between rounds along the scenic South Carolina shore.

Besides the huge corporate support for the sport, another factor enhancing golf's status is the booming number of courses, up more than 20 percent through the 1990s. Most of the new courses are offered as amenities in residential developments or attractions at new resorts, usually with no sex restrictions at all.

Apart from a spike in 1990, the overall number of golfers has grown much less rapidly and the proportion of courses deemed private plunged from 38 percent of the total to just 28 percent.

So with the number of available courses far outpacing the ranks of golfers clamoring to play, why the big deal over Augusta?

All golf courses are not created equal, and for those pushing into the upper echelons of business, there is no substitute for the elite spots that make a positive impression on clients accustomed to being pampered.

In that respect, Augusta is the gold standard.

"You can't make a better impression than inviting another executive to play at Augusta National," Lapchick said. "There's a reason they all want to be members."


`Fight is not over'

Augusta's membership policies send a symbolic message, telling "serious professional women that there are still parts of the male world they won't have entree to," Lapchick said. "That tells them the fight is not over."

The wealthy executives who make up Augusta's membership, including Motorola's Chris Galvin and Sara Lee's John Bryan, have an opportunity to strike a meaningful blow in favor of women in the workplace, some say.

"The corporate leaders who will put equality of women ahead of their golf agenda will really make a difference," Grzelakowski said.

Rogala's not so sure.

"I don't think it's going to change real fast regardless of what Augusta does or doesn't do," she said. "These things take more time than we ever would want."


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