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Canadian women taking up golf, challenging corporate stereotypes

TORONTO — Gina Izumi was in her first corporate job out of university and told a male colleague her boyfriend enjoyed hitting the links.
Gina Izumi, seasoned golfer and senior vice-president of customer success and growth markets at software company SAP Canada is shown in this undated handout image. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO

TORONTO — Gina Izumi was in her first corporate job out of university and told a male colleague her boyfriend enjoyed hitting the links. If Izumi stayed with him, her colleague said jokingly, Izumi would become a "golf widow" — spending her weekends alone at home looking after the kids and taking on chores while he played yet another round.

Izumi was so determined to buck the stereotype that she and her boyfriend went straight to Golf Town to pick up clubs and shoes, then headed to the driving range.

"I didn't know if I'd like it. I didn't know if I'd be any good at it, but it didn't matter ... I just wanted to prove that man wrong and never put myself in a position where I let myself be held back unfairly because I was a woman," she recalled.

More than 25 years later, Izumi is far from a "golf widow." The senior vice-president of customer success and growth markets at software company SAP Canada is now a seasoned golfer married to the man who taught her how to golf. The couple take golf-centric vacations and have a son who got his first clubs at age four and a daughter who routinely beats her mom on the course.

But most importantly, Izumi is working to build a corporate Canada where no woman feels excluded or put down because she hasn't learned to play golf — still a heavily favoured pastime among the global business community, which uses the sport to lure in clients, sign deals and even identify future talent for promotions.

Inspired by her colleague (whom she lost touch with long ago) and others who positioned golf as a man's domain, Izumi started Tee Up for Success, which runs lessons teaching women driving, chipping, putting and golf etiquette, followed by nine holes at Lakeridge Links in Whitby, Ont.

After golf, there is networking and then, a themed discussion — topics have included impostor syndrome, mindfulness and how to build a talent pipeline of women — over dinner.

SAP Canada, which partnered with Deloitte, PwC and Illumiti, is covering the costs this season, the third since Tee Up for Success began in 2021 with virtual lessons because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Tee Up for Success moved to in-person sessions as the health crisis eased up.

Roughly 65 women from 24 companies have joined sessions so far, but women and girls remain outnumbered among Canada’s 5.8 million recreational golfers, making up 31 per cent of players, Golf Canada said.

"There's this idea that golf is not a place for women. Well, yes, it is,” said Lisa ‘Longball’ Vlooswyk, an eight-time Canadian long drive champion and women's golf school owner.

She estimates 75 to 80 per cent of attendees at most golf tournaments are men — and that’s not always because women don’t know how to play.

Vlooswyk saw many pick up golf during the pandemic because it was a safer sport to play as than something indoors or high-contact. It allowed them to spend time with loved ones, challenge stereotypes and reap career benefits.

"Women are excelling in all aspects of the corporate world, but they don't want to be left out," she said.

Women's golf has grown by 150,000 more players over the last decade, Golf Canada estimated.

However, many won’t play in tournaments, especially work-related ones, because they feel they aren’t good enough to compete against men.

"Some of the worst swings you'll see are from the guys, but they don't care if they cold top it, buck it into the trees," Vlooswyk said.

"They realize it's about the relationships and that's where the women need that shift."

Others stay away because they have never been taught the sport, don’t understand the rules or, like Javeriah Farrukah, have been intimidated by how physical they perceive golf to be.

"I'm a petite person and so I've generally not been very good at sports that require a lot of athleticism," said Farrukah.

Farrukah, who moved from Pakistan to Toronto in 2020, only held a golf club once before she signed up for Tee Up for Success, which eventually taught her that golf is a game of strategy rather than strength. Now she's grown confident enough to sign up for tournaments with clients and connected with colleagues she’d never have met before because she didn’t golf.

Some even link the sport to higher earnings and job titles. About 90 per cent of Fortune 500 CEOs play golf and CEOs who regularly play golf are paid 17 per cent more on average than those who do not, the Professional Golfers Association has said.

Brooke Henderson, who holds the most professional victories of any Canadian golfer, said the business and networking benefits women have recently seen from recreational golf are “amazing.”

“A lot of the women that I play pro-ams with, they say that exact thing, that they've gained a lot from being able to play the sport and connect with their male counterparts on a golf course, too,” she said at Shaughnessy Golf and Country Club in Vancouver, where the CPKC Women’s Open is being held this week.

“If we can continue to grow that, I think that's great.”

— With files from John Chidley-Hill in Vancouver

Tara Deschamps, The Canadian Press