New program appeals to women golfers

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It is a mid-June Saturday afternoon when a sight that would have been unthinkable just a few months earlier brings a smile to the face of Greg Leighton.

Walking across the parking lot is Lynn Hawkins. The Cumberland woman is pulling a golf cart and bag. Leighton’s wife, Vicki, walks out to meet her friend, her own clubs and cart in tow.

The women exchange pleasantries then head off to the pro shop to purchase a couple buckets of golf balls before walking to the range to put into practice what the rookie players have learned the previous few weeks at Val Halla Golf Course’s Wine and Nine program.

“How cool is that,” says Greg’s playing partner, watching the two smiling women walk away. “You might have to buy her a new set of irons, though.”

Greg chuckles and shakes his head, reminded again his wife and he now have a new hobby the couple can share.

Wine and Nine is Val Halla’s midweek, after-work program targeted at occasional women golfers. The goal is to overcome barriers encountered by women who are not avid golfers, hone their skills through lessons and clinics, play golf with other occasional golfers and network….all over a glass of wine. Participants in the weekly program join as individuals or gather up friends and sign on as a group.

The program is one of a growing number of grow-the-game initiatives designed to help golf regain the momentum it gained during the 1990s but has lost in recent years.

The number of people who play golf has declined steadily since the year 2000 from 30 million to 25 million, according to the National Golf Foundation (NGF) and Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association.

NGF Research Director Jim Kass in an April New York Times article said the prolonged slump has defied the old adage of once a golfer always a golfer. About 3 million golfers quit playing yearly with slightly less than that picking the game up.

“The man in the street will tell you that golf is booming because he sees Tiger Woods on TV,” Kass was quoted in the article. “But we track the reality. The reality is, while we haven’t exactly tanked, the numbers have been disappointing for some time.”

Val Halla head pro Brian Bickford made a presentation on how to grow a portion of a course’s customer base two years ago at a Professional Golfers Association meeting. Bickford opted to discuss women golfers based on his experience at the Cumberland facility, which has roughly 100 female members. He developed a business plan that incorporated the Wine and Nine idea.

The club offered the program via word-of-mouth to its members hoping a dozen would sign up. Surprisingly, 73 did so.

This year, Val Halla advertised the availability of three, separate five-week Wine and Nine sessions in the Cumberland and Falmouth town recreation fliers. One session was scheduled on Wednesday nights and the other on Thursday nights. All 144 slots quickly filled and a waiting list took root.

Wine and Nine is based on the PGA’s emphasis on the need for education, especially for new golfers, to overcome the stress and embarrassment novice players often feel when taking up the sport. In the initial sessions, instructors discuss basic topics like the history of golf, various parts of the course, how to fill out a scorecard, what to wear, whether to buy new clubs. Later sessions cover the various types of shots as well as when and how to execute them. This all occurs between occasional glasses of wine.

“The players seem to enjoy the wine and networking opportunities as well,” Bickford says. “The program has been very educational for me as a teacher. Golf does not have to be an intense sport all the time. It can and should be more about just having fun. That’s what we try to do with Wine and Nine.”

Wine and Nine offers participants the opportunity to swap e-mail addresses so they can connect on the golf course down the road or simply keep in touch. They can also rejoin a later Wine and Nine session or sign up for additional group/individual lessons.

School and company groups have contacted Val Halla about developing separate Wine and Nine sessions for their members and employees.

Women looking for a new sport to participate in with children, as couples or as part of a group have found the program particularly attractive, Bickford says.

Val Halla plans to offer Wine and Nine again next year and may incorporate an occasional golf outing as part of the curriculum.

FMI, 829-2225 or