Ed. note: This piece is the latest submission to Knockdown Presents, in which we're giving a platform to fresh new voices from around the golf world. For more on this venture, including how to submit your own stories, click here.
Golf is hard. So is listening to the guy next to me at the range: his strained huffing as he starts the downswing; the dull grinding of metal on plastic as he misses most of the ball; the muffled sound of his ball blazing a 50-yard path of shame through the grass.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m no pro. After two years of working with an instructor, I still pick up my head way too early, resulting in a ton of mis-hits. But one day at the range, Mr. Wormburner himself invaded my hitting bay, and without so much as an introduction, he placed one hand between my shoulder blades and the other on my club. "You should rotate less," he said, jerking my 7-iron in various directions. "Bring your bicep just under your chin and tilt your wrists to put the club behind your head. Try it." To get him off my back (literally), I swung hard, and my ball scuttled maybe 30 yards. "That’s much better," he said, oblivious to the result. He strutted away, as if he had offered the only advice that could save my swing. I seethed.
This kind of intrusion is familiar to almost every woman who has spent time on the practice tee. Most interlopers belong to the unholy Trinity of driving-range mansplainers:
1) The Well-Meaning Know-It-All, who offers generic tips lifted from golf magazines without understanding the player’s skill set or tendencies;
2) The Elderly Wonder, who claims he can shoot his age and that he once knew Ben Hogan personally;
3) The Armchair Golfer, who yells advice from his rocker without ever picking up a club. He is generally the worst. With a beer almost always in hand, he is so loud that everyone on the range knows he is scrutinizing my swing, whether I’ve asked him to or not. One such guy dragged his chair across the property to set up behind me and tell me I needed to hinge my wrists more.
I started to dread going to the range, and I would groan loudly when a member of the Trinity approached. At first I would tell the offender I was working on some key issues my actual instructor had identified, but that only emboldened him to interject his own half-baked swing theories. So I tried ignoring the drivel altogether. "I’m just making sure you don’t develop bad habits," was the common refrain. But all the unwanted advice had the opposite effect—the fragmented pieces of information melded into a jumble of swing thoughts.
The Trinity lurked at driving ranges I visited from Kentucky to Arizona. I started to wear noise-canceling headphones, not to listen to any music, but rather to discourage any conversation.
Over time, I noticed the Trinity never offered unsolicited advice to fellow men. When I described this phenomenon to my female colleagues, they nodded knowingly. The married ones complained that their husbands had ruined their games. On Internet discussion boards, I found women across the country had similar complaints. It seems golf is in fact a gentleman’s sport, where men presume women to be tenderlings who can only succeed by having their hands held from tee to green.
When I described my experiences to men, they universally suggested the possibility that members of the Trinity wanted to flirt, as if this was some justification for the unsolicited advice. I’ve been called "cutie" and "babe," but none of the Trinity has asked me on a date. Instead, I recognized their condescending behavior as part of a larger culture impacting other parts of my life.
Long before I was born, my parents immigrated from Hong Kong and embraced Southern Baptist values, particularly the emphasis on a strong patriarchy. During my youth, my parents paid closer attention to my brother’s development, simply because he was a boy. When I told my parents I wanted to attend business school, they suggested that I needed my husband’s blessing. And when the marriage fell apart, my parents blamed the split on my "independence." Professional school ultimately steered me to the world of hospital administration, which is dominated by men. When I wrote an e-mail explaining a business strategy, a colleague criticized its wording. "I could take your message and reframe parts of it with my Y chromosome mindset," he wrote.
Ironically, I took up golf to escape these frustrating realities. Trying to master this maddening game gave me a sense of accomplishment, and incremental improvements served as a reminder that I could still succeed even as I floundered in other areas of my life. As I devoted more time and effort to golf, I felt more strongly that every trip to the range shouldn’t turn into a battle with the Trinity. I also felt embarrassed that offhand comments could make me feel so self-conscious. But I love the game too much to let these guys drive me away.
There needs to be a larger conversation about this weird phenomenon. Everyone in the golf establishment is looking for ways to grow the game. Well, here’s an idea: make it more welcoming toward women. There should be a sign at every range: "All men shall refrain from making unwanted comments that undermine a woman’s confidence in her swing." The message should also be printed on every scorecard.
Several weeks ago, I saw two older women, obviously good friends, at the range after their first group lesson. Inspired by their camaraderie, I set up next to them. Although their shots fell flat, their mood never did. Near the end of my session, one of the women saw me watching her swing, and we began to chat. I gave her my best tip, one I wish I had gotten years ago: "Never listen to unsolicited advice."
Bonnie Wong is a recovering lawyer who works in the healthcare industry. She lives in Louisville, Ky., where she is on the verge of breaking 90.