Swing out sisters
It's been said that golf is an acronym for 'gentlemen only, ladies forbidden', but perhaps a more appropriate modern acronym would be 'girls onrushing, lads forewarned'.
Women have come a long way in the game since the days when they were barred from courses and clubhouses. Some of those clubs still exist - such as the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews in Scotland - but women's golf is getting more participation, attention and recognition.
In Hong Kong, women made up less than 5 per cent of the golfing population in the 1990s, but now one in four golfers in the city is female, according to Peony Choi, founder and chairwoman of the Hong Kong-China Executive Women's Golf Association, a non-profit organisation that promotes women's golf.
A special day was recently held for 48 women at Clearwater Bay Golf and Country Club as part of the 1010 Golf Challenge, which will culminate in a grand final on April 23. Korean-American golf star and 1010 ambassador Christina Kim, who flew in to host the event, says the day was a 'prime example' of women becoming more interested in golf.
'Women, as well as men, are realising how good golf can be for networking,' says Kim, 28, a two-time winner on the US Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) Tour.
'On the golf course, you can learn so much more about someone without having to say anything. Golf brings out the great - and maybe the not so great - in people.'
Globally, women's golf is rising in stature. Earlier this month, Mission Hills Resort Hainan hosted the inaugural World Ladies Championship, co-sanctioned by the Ladies European Tour and China LPGA Tour.
LPGA commissioner Michael Whan says this is 'a phenomenal time' in women's golf. This year's LPGA Tour features 27 tournaments across 12 countries offering US$47 million in total prize money, up by four tournaments and US$6.6 million from last year.
The LPGA last year launched Chinese and Korean versions of its website, and the traffic from Asian viewers on LPGA.com grew from 1.2 million page views in 2008 to nearly six million in 2011. The tour's television viewership has also risen 28 per cent worldwide, says Whan.
'I think it's about time for the women's game, and the result of it being such a good time is showing up in our business.'
'Women's golf is very different to what it was 10 years ago,' says England's top golfer, Melissa Reid, 24. 'The players are getting stronger, fitter and better. We're getting more variety in our skills and the shots we can hit. The depth of the women's game is so much stronger.'
Even so, the women continue to swing in the shadow of the men. Prize money is one stark difference. When Angela Stanford won the HSBC Women's Champions last month, she earned US$210,000; a week earlier, Bill Haas picked up more than US$1 million for winning the PGA Tour's Northern Trust Open in California.
It's still a male-dominated industry, in terms of media coverage, employment, opportunities, equipment, apparel and even facilities. 'You can still see the dominance of male golfers in the market by the size of men's changing rooms, which are almost double - sometimes even four times - the size of the ladies' changing rooms,' says Choi.
Many of the LPGA Tour stops use the more spacious men's locker rooms, where potted plants sometimes disguise the urinals.
The Women's Golf Market Study in 2009 by US-based independent research firm Golf Datatech polled 1,000 'serious' female golfers. Almost one in three considered the average golf course to be 'a very male-oriented place', which inhibits more frequent play.
At the PGA Merchandise Show in January in Orlando, Florida, the game's luminaries - from Jack Nicklaus to young LPGA star Lexi Thompson - preached the need to make the game more accessible and fun for women.
A study released last month highlights certain 'best practices' at facilities to attract women golfers. These include having the forwardmost set of tees ideally under 4,500 yards; a golf shop with a solid selection of women's clothing and equipment; male and female service and coaching staff; and childcare facilities.
Commissioned by the US National Golf Course Owners Association, the study found that women who played at such facilities played more often and enjoyed the experience overall, rewarding course operators with better financial results.
Kim believes many women still feel intimidated playing alongside men, who generally hit the ball longer and harder. But she advises novices not to worry about the score. 'Just go out there and make sure that you're enjoying yourself,' she says.
Asians are particularly suited for golf, according to Japanese world No9 Ai Miyazato, 26. 'In golf, physical stature really doesn't matter that much. It's a game that requires patience, and I think Asians are perhaps patient people, and they don't get too emotional.'
Women golfers themselves can also help promote change. World Golf Hall of Famer Judy Rankin, 67, suggests in a column in Golf Digest Woman that women can approach the game more like a sport and less like a social event (it 'should not be a chat session'), and also use the right equipment to bring out their best.
To draw media attention to women's golf, glamour events are often organised at tournaments. The HSBC Women's Champions, for example, had a fashion show where top LPGA golfers modelled US$11 million worth of Tiffany & Co jewellery.
'I think any attention is good,' says Reid, 'but we're great golfers, and we work very hard, so hopefully people look at not just our looks but our skills.
'My only fear for the women's game is that there's a lot of the same type of golfer. I feel that the girls can try to get their personality across a little bit more.'
With a growing horde of young, attractive stars armed with social media smarts (subscribe to LPGATourPlayers on Twitter and watch your feed get flooded), their personalities will quickly shine through.
And with greater attention guaranteed due to golf's return to the 2016 Olympics after a 112-year absence, the only way for women's golf is up.