Though Mary, Queen of Scots, played the game in the 1500s, golf eventually became known as a gentleman’s sport, especially in the United States. But women have never been entirely excluded, and today they are the fastest-growing segment of the industry’s market. Whether they aspire to win trophies or just play for fun and recreation, the ladies are making their mark on the San Antonio golf scene.
Back in the days when Brenda Goldsmith Hocott fell in love with golf, there were few female golf teams in the United States, and the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) was a small, struggling organization on the verge of bankruptcy. In high school, young Brenda had no choice but to play with the boys.
“I don’t think the boys liked it very much; they gave me a hard time,” says Hocott, 52, and, until a few months ago, the resident golf pro at the Riverside (municipal) Golf Course. “I felt isolated, but I had a good game, and I could compete with them. I was just tough.” Tough indeed and talented. As a junior player, she distinguished herself quickly beyond the boundaries of her school by winning the San Antonio City Junior Girls Championship in 1970 and then topped that the following year by becoming both the state junior champion and the winner of the San Antonio City Women’s Championship. From there on, there was no stopping her.
In 1973, Hocott — then known as Brenda Goldsmith — was ranked No. 1 junior golfer in the United States, along with such future luminaries as Nancy Lopez and Amy Alcott. But despite that, her career might not have gone very far had it not been for the passage of Title IX, which led to the conditions for the creation of women’s athletic teams in the nation’s colleges. Her father was among the activists advocating for the passage that conveniently coincided with her high school graduation. Thus, Hocott entered Texas A&M University as the first woman in the Southwest Conference to receive a full athletic scholarship.
But she still had to play with the boys for a while until the university got its act together and actually formed a women’s team. Though she eventually became the team’s captain and assistant coach, Hocott continued to enter various amateur tournaments, again winning quite a few of them. She was part of the U.S. team that won the Curtis Cup both in 1978 and in 1980. Golf was dominating her life to the point that she chose to major in agronomy with specialization in turf management.
“I enjoyed competing and winning,” she says. “That was my whole life for six or seven years. But there came a point when I realized I had achieved all my amateur goals, and it was either get a job or go pro. My future husband, Richard, influenced me in that decision. He told me, ‘If you are
going to do it, this is the time in your life to try it.'”
The two had met in high school, but it was golf that brought them closer together after both returned home following their respective college graduations. Today, the couple live with their three children and Richard’s father in the same house where Richard Hocott grew up. And the parents are not the only golfers in the household. Daughters Natalie and Haley both play for their respective college teams. Yet, oddly enough, the girls know little about their mother’s illustrious record in the sport. Hocott says she didn’t want them to feel any pressure. “They were not born with a golf club in their hands,” she explains as we are sitting in her living room talking about these matters while her daughters — still home for Christmas vacation — amused themselves next door looking at pictures they had taken at the George Strait concert the previous night. “Really, Mom, you did all that?” they reportedly asked when shown their mother’s résumé recently.
“All that” includes four years on the LPGA tour, which in the early ’80s was not what it is today in either visibility or money. Still, on her first try, Hocott finished second among 130 girls trying to qualify. Unfortunately, an injury sidelined her for a while, but she eventually returned to play in 22 events in 1982, finishing fifth in one tournament, and continued to compete in the next couple of years. Meanwhile, her relationship with Richard became serious, leading to marriage in 1984. It was time for another goal reassessment.
The demands of traveling and competing (see Christi Cano’s story below) hardly supported a married lifestyle, let alone pregnancy and children. All of that is different now, says Hocott; families are rather encouraged these days. “I would have stayed longer if it had been like now,” she explains. “Also, I couldn’t really make enough to support myself. Back then, only the top 10 players made good money. Now that, too, is different, more equitable. Prize money has gone up so much, though it’s still less than for men.”
Though she is still an LPGA member, Hocott dropped out of pro tours in the mid-’80s to bear children and enjoy the home turf. Sports became a more leisurely thing for her, like biking and fishing. That’s probably why her daughters see her as “Mom” instead of a golfer. Inevitably, though, she had to find her way back in, albeit in a different setup. Since 1994 Hocott has served as teacher and junior golf leader
for the Parks & Recreation junior programs and was, until the recent reorganization (see box), the golf pro at the Riverside (municipal) Golf Course.
During her tenure, she initiated middle school golf clinics for girls and taught underprivileged kids during summer vacations. In recognition, the San Antonio Junior Golf Association presented her with the Bette Dodd Award in 2004. Hocott continues to teach a women’s golf class through North East Independent School District continuing education and gives private lessons. An advocate of making golf accessible for everyone, she looks back at her time with Parks & Recreation with satisfaction.
“I felt I was serving the citizens of San Antonio,” she says. “I worked to improve the conditions of the golf course without raising rates. As a result, more people came to play. I am very proud of that. I would like to see
the junior program continued so that all kids can play. Golf can be an expensive game, and keeping it affordable through the municipal courses is very important. I played on municipal courses when I was growing up. Most kids need to work with a pro to learn, and that can be expensive. Golf requires a lot of instruction.”
THE RISING STAR
Even on a cloudy day in January, the Pecan Valley Golf Course looks like an oasis of peace and beauty in the midst of urban sprawl. Despite predictions of rain, a number of players, all men, are setting up to tee-off, while a few others are enjoying a buffet breakfast at the little dining room by the pro shop.
“We are trying to get more ladies to play here,” explains Christi Cano, San Antonio’s current LPGA pro, who, between tours, works in the shop here and helps players improve their game. “People still think of golf as a men’s sport. When I answer the phone, some callers think they have reached the wrong number; they are so surprised to hear a female voice. We are starting Ladies’ Day once a week, which, I think, will make women more comfortable about coming out to play.”
In addition to breakfast and lunch, the ladies will participate in a golf clinic with Cano, who can definitely teach them a thing or two about the game. A native San Antonian, Cano hit her first ball at the tender age of 3 and participated in her first junior tournament a year later. It wasn’t a case of overly ambitious parents pushing their little girl toward stardom, however. Rather, little Christi simply loved going to play with her three older brothers at the driving range near their home. It was pure fun, she says. And that sense of fun kept her going throughout her growing- up years.
Because the family could not afford private clubs, Cano honed her skills on municipal courses, competed and won in many junior tournaments, both at the city and state levels, and eventually obtained sponsorships to travel to outof- state championships, where she gained wider exposure. “During the summers, I was playing golf virtually 24 hours a day,” she recalls with just a touch of exaggeration to make her point. “I was getting better and better, yet I didn’t even know it. I was just having so much fun.”
She may not have noticed her own prowess, but others did. In 1999, when she graduated from Edison High, the Express-News named her Sportswoman of the Year, only the second golfer (after Wendy Ward) to be so recognized by the paper. College coaches also took notice. Before long, the rising San Antonio star found herself teeing and putting at Oklahoma State University, which gave her a full athletic scholarship.
Overnight, life became more challenging. Not only was she away from home for the first time, but she had to keep up with her classes while devoting long hours to golf. “It was like a job,” she says. “We spent five to six hours on the course every day. The coach would say to us, ‘I’ll be out there at 3 p.m. I better see all of you there practicing.’ Traveling (to compete) was the hardest part because we regularly missed classes. One time during my freshman year we missed 14 days in a row. When I got
back, I could hardly remember what classes I had.”
On the other hand, the trips, which took the team to such places as California, Hawaii and Puerto Rico, were like horizon-expanding vacations. There was usually some time for sightseeing and exploring. And just being with her teammates was a horizon expanding experience, as well. Several hailed from other countries, where they had been top junior players.
Even in such company, Cano distinguished herself both as a golfer and a student. Though she graduated with a degree in marketing, golf remained her central focus. She spent the next two years on the so-called Futures Tour, a smaller professional tour described as the “official developmental tour” of the LPGA, but the support college provided was gone. She was now on her own regarding finances. As Hocott observed, golf is an expensive sport, and young pros must raise their own money to cover traveling expenses while on tour, at least until they start making money by reaching the top ranks.
“I could only afford to enter events nearby,” says Cano, “like in McAllen or in Kansas. I couldn’t go to the East Coast and places like that. I did well enough, though, that I knew I should keep on going.” Eventually, she felt ready for the big ticket challenge, the LPGA Tour itself. After surmounting yet another hurdle — qualifying school — she finally realized her dream. For a while, I was in shock that I had actually accomplished it,” she says. Unfortunately, her first year on the big girls’ tour did not quite go as expected. Money worries were still plaguing her. Even worse, at about the same time, her beloved father fell seriously ill and later died. With her heart back home with him, she nevertheless followed his wishes to join the tour she had worked so hard to qualify for. Between April and June last year, she took part in no less than 19 LPGA events in the United States, Canada and Mexico. “It was a grueling experience,” admits Cano. “And I had a bad year, mentally. It was hard for me to keep it all together. Despite everything, however, I learned what I need to do in the future. On that course, I have to live in the moment, not think ahead or think about anything else.”
So now, she is regrouping for her second assault on the LPGA fortress, so to speak. She estimates that she needs to raise about $80,000 in sponsorships for the 2008 season, and she is hoping that the people she is meeting at the Pecan Valley Club will be able to help. While her brothers have long given up on the sport, their little sister is pressing on. “When you are not winning, it really tests your dedication,” remarks Cano wistfully as we are wrapping up our conversation. “But I try to think of all the things I have accomplished so far and where I am today. I just have to believe in myself.”
FOR THE LOVE OF THE GAME
The first time Jeanne Parsley tried to play golf, it was not exactly a resounding success. Married to an avid golfer, she thought it would be nice to spend more time with her husband by sharing his favorite pastime. But out on the course, she soon discovered that she was in way over her head.
“It was a disaster,” says Parsley, recalling the episode from more than 20 years ago. “I had expected everything to be perfect. Golf is not a game you can perfect in three easy lessons, though. So I put my sticks away and kept them there for the next 10 years.”
Then one day while she was working at Valero as the travel office supervisor, she heard that fellow employees were starting an after-work golf program. Once again, she signed up for lessons, and this time she did not give up.
Today, Parsley belongs to several amateur golf groups and plays every chance she gets. She is currently the membership chairperson for the San Antonio Women’s Golf Association (SAWGA) — probably the largest women’s golf organization in town — and is also part of the Course (currently closed for renovation).
As if that were not enough, the now passionate golfer has also joined a smaller, informal group of eight to 10 friends for even more time on the green. She knows all the golf courses in and around the city and occasionally travels with her friends to Austin or even farther to discover new ones. “My husband says that I’ve become a fanatic,” she says with a chuckle.
|To become a member of SAWGA, a woman must already know the complex rules of the game and have an established handicap of 36 or lower. Parsley’s is 22, but she is hoping to bring it down into the teens. The organization schedules regular weekly play days and sponsors larger tournaments. For 75 years, it also organized the citywide women’s amateur championship, which was open to all qualified players, regardless of membership. That changed last year, however, as the all-volunteer SAWGA decided to transfer the organizing function to Golf San Antonio, a company that runs a variety of golf tournaments here, including the Valero Texas Open PGA event. Though the profile of the championship remains the same, it has been renamed the Greater San Antonio Women’s Championship.
Most likely, though, Parsley won’t be signing up for it. The slim and trim 67-year-old former teacher is plenty busy as it is. When she is not swinging her clubs, she tutors children with learning disabilities and performs services as a handwriting analyst. Like golf, it’s not a skill you acquire in a couple of weeks. As a former teacher, Parsley had already noticed years ago that she could tell a lot about a student just by looking at his or her handwriting. There must be a way to study this, she thought. And there was. She is now called on to determine the authenticity of questioned signatures and has also worked with a company that makes those little signature scanners we have all become accustomed to in stores. And, yes, she can even figure out your personality by examining your handwriting.
But Parsley has reached another goal, as well. She finally can hit the fairways with her husband without being embarrassed. “We can now have fun doing it together,” she says. “Part of the pleasure for us is being out there in beautiful surroundings. There’s so much beauty on the golf course. I am a tree-hugging animal lover, so I was thrilled to see a huge red-tail hawk at Riverside (golf course) just perched on a branch above us recently. We stopped and watched. This past Sunday, Eddie and I were at the Republic (another golf course), and we saw six hawks flying over us. I may pick berries sometimes. On another occasion, we had fun watching seals. We both love nature as much as that dimpled little ball.”
A DIFFERENT KIND OF GOLF CAREER
As Cano’s experience shows, having women pros in clubs and on golf courses is still not all that common, but a woman in the position of a PGA golf director is truly a rarity, at least in Texas. Reportedly, there are only two such women in our fair state, and one of them is Susie Womack, who works at the Hyatt Regency Hill Country Resort and Spa in Northwest San Antonio.
To get where she is, Womack did not follow the usual competitive route, or at least not entirely. Born in Saigon, to a Vietnamese mother and an American father, she came to this country as a toddler and started to play golf with her father when she was only 4. Obviously gifted, she quickly progressed to entering and winning junior tournaments at various levels, including the Women’s Western Amateur Golf Tournament. And like Cano and Hocott, she won an athletic college scholarship and played on the golf team for Baylor University. But that’s where the similarities end.
“I chose Baylor because I wanted to be pre-med, but after my first year I changed my mind,” says Womack, 40, who’s been at the Hyatt Resort since 2004. “I was meeting so many people from the golf industry, and it hit me at some point that people actually got paid to have such a good time. I
thought this was a great career. So I switched my major to education, and my junior year I decided to do what I needed to do to become a PGA golf pro.”
The PGA is, of course, the Professional Golf Association, normally associated with men, but it was also the place where a person like Womack could get the preparation for the club career she aspired to. At the time, the young golfer was already working in her spare time at the Cottonwood Creek Golf Course in Waco and later moved to a country club in Dallas. To obtain her PGA Class A status, she had to complete three levels of courses dealing with management, budgeting, club operations and the like, in addition to passing the player’s ability test designed to test an applicant’s mastery of the game itself.
Womack had no interest in pursuing a competitive tour career. With her new credentials in hand, she threw herself into the club scene, so to speak, with all her energy. A succession of jobs followed, until she finally landed her first position as golf director at Sun City,
Texas, a planned “active adult” community in Georgetown. There, she got the opportunity of a lifetime to start a golf operation from scratch. “That was both exciting and a little scary, to be the one making all the decisions,” she acknowledges, “but I enjoyed starting up and building facilities, creating or turning something around.”
Unfortunately, her position was eliminated in the wake of ownership changes. Still, she got another opportunity to build something new when the Hill Country Golf Club added another nine-hole spread to its existing expanse of rolling hills and meadows. As the golf director, Womack oversees the entire golf and tennis operation, from budgeting and merchandising to turf condition and hosting tournaments. “I have found my home. I love the resort side of the industry,” she says. “Being attached to a hotel means you have many more resources at your disposal than in a stand-alone facility
— PR, engineering, sales, etc.” These days she sits in meetings more often than in golf-carts, but her satisfaction now comes from making the game more enjoyable for everyone else. She must be doing something right. In its June 2007 issue, The Conde Nast Traveler ranked the Hill Country Resort 17th among its 100 top golf resorts.
Womack sees San Antonio as becoming more of a golf destination for travelers, though the entire industry is in a bit of a slump right now. Enthusiastic builders have saturated the market, creating an imbalance between supply and demand, she observes. Thus, part of her job at the resort, but
also as a member of the PGA President’s Council, is to promote the sport. “I am interested in growing the game,” she says. “The PGA has a program called Play Golf America that tries to educate people about the sport, with a special emphasis on women and juniors. In the four years I’ve been here, I’ve seen more women come to play and more young people.”
And does she still play? “Absolutely! It’s important that I be out there on the course to experience what guests are experiencing. I play with our staff and with members. Though I seldom teach these days, if I am requested by a high-profile guest,
I’ll do it. I can still beat the boys in the backyard!” she quips.
Including the boy she is married to. Her husband, David Womack, is a recreational player who doesn’t resent his wife’s superiority on the green. After all, they met on a golf course where she worked at the time and married in 2004. He knew what he was getting himself into. Still, people are curious. “‘Do you let your husband win?’ they ask me,” she says, with slight dismay. “The answer is ‘no,’ I make him better.”
MIXING FUN WITH PROFIT
Ah! Getting better!
Golf is a complex game that one can spend years perfecting. Just ask the ladies in the local chapter of the Executive Women’s Golf Association. They are all striving in that direction. American Airlines representative Ellen Copeland, a lifelong golf fan, decided to stop watching and start doing back in 2005 after the company relocated her to the Alamo City. Three years later, she says she still considers herself a beginning-level player, but she has no regrets. Not only is she enjoying the driving andputting, she finds it good for business, too.
“At the first meeting I attended, I found two of my customers there,” she says. “There are lots of benefits to being part of this group, and business networking is only one of them. As I mentioned to you in my e-mail, it’s not only good for business. If you want to meet new people, play golf; if you want to support a charity, play golf.”
Copeland is sharing her experiences with me over drinks at the Westin La Cantera Resort, where she and her friends often play and have their events. With us are EWGA’s chapter president, Debra Cesaro, a senior manager for HermanMiller; realtor Kara Sagebiel; and CPA Theresa Burns West, controller for the engineering firm CDS/Muery Services.
Cesaro further illustrates for me the good side of networking with people one knows and trusts: “I bought a new home recently and used one of our members to build my outdoor kitchen. Also, Kara sold my old home and found
my new one, so that helped her get her business off the ground. So, it’s women in business helping each other.” Everyone nods.
Their collective enthusiasm for both the sport and their organization is almost palpable. First, as working women, they schedule all tee-time after hours or on weekends, which more traditional organizations don’t necessarily do. And because there are no ability requirements to join, you can always find partners that are at your level, even if you are a beginner. In addition, special discounts for lessons and for play make it easier to improve without breaking the bank.
To improve is, of course, exciting. “I remember my first par better than my first date,” jokes Copeland to appreciative laughter. But it also opens up further possibilities such as entering “sectional” and national tournaments; playing with men
— “husbands, colleagues, bosses” — and going on golf vacations to exotic places, just to mention a few. West, for example, met her current boyfriend on the course and now plays with him a great deal, while Cesaro, whose current handicap is 25, actually beats her husband these days.
And, yes, it is apparently true, at least some of the time, that deals are being made on the links. “In my previous job, my boss came to me once in the middle of the day and asked if I had my golf clubs in the car. He wanted me to play that day with him and a potential client,” recalls Cesaro. “For a woman to be asked to join them was quite exceptional. Well, for the first few holes, we just chatted about general things, but then they started talking business.”
“You really get to know a person when you play golf with him or her,” adds Copeland by way of expanding on the theme. “You get to evaluate his competitiveness, patience, honesty, temper, even his sense of humor. I got to know my boss better after I played with him.”
But membership in EWGA is not “all about me.” Members take part in and support charity events, and they also help young female golfers by offering four $1,000 scholarships a year to aspiring LPGA professionals. Christy Cano received one of those in the past, as did Brenda Hocott’s daughter Natalie. Every year in February, the organization holds its kickoff “par-tee” at La Cantera, where the checks are presented to the recipients.
Cesaro felt especially proud of both her association and her city when she was in Hawaii last year and saw Cano compete on tour. She wasn’t there just to watch, though. She, too, experienced playing by the ocean, albeit as an amateur. Perhaps next year she could realize her ambition to play at Scotland’s historic St. Andrew’s. That gets everyone contemplating how much fun a trip like that would be. Well, maybe, someday.
So, what’s the best thing about golf?
That’s an easy question, really, not only for the EWGA ladies, but for everyone we talked to for this article. It’s a game of a lifetime. Here’s how Copeland put it: “When you are in your 20s, you have lots of sports options to choose from. But as you get older, those options narrow. Golf, however, is something you can play for the rest of your life.”