Golf Outings

In 1972, Lori Dokken, then a bright-eyed teenager living in Benson, Minn., sent away for her first golf bag, a gleaming red-and-white model advertised in the Sears catalogue for $20. Toting her rummage-sale clubs around the Benson public course, she often played up to 36 holes a day with her brother, her cousin, or the retired farmers who berated her for walking barefoot on the greens. To earn extra cash, she'd wade into the nearby creek to fish out golf balls, then sell them to passing golfers. In junior high, she joined the boys' golf team--the only girl to play on the team. "I loved golf," says Dokken, currently a musician living in the Twin Cities.

While hardly the first lesbian to fall in love with the links, Dokken is part of a growing number of out queer women who've claimed a spot on Minnesota greens in recent years. Golf has seen a surge of interest among the state's female population since the early '90s, and women constitute nearly 40 percent of all new golfers. Lesbian leagues have sprung up on local courses as the sport has spread. Golf, one might argue, has replaced softball as the stereotypical sport of choice among athletic dykes. The Nabisco Dinah Shore LPGA Golf Tournament, held annually in Palm Springs, has become "the lesbian event of the year," according to the gay news magazine, The Advocate. And locally, lesbian golf fans are gearing up for the Rainbow Foods LPGA Classic (known as the Minnesota Classic), slated for Aug. 17 - 23. The event draws onlookers of all stripes, but, says longtime tournament volunteer Shari Gingerich, "There's certainly a large contingent of lesbians out there."

"Part of golf's popularity is that we are getting older and can't play softball," jokes Mary Zappetillo, a board member of the Minnesota Women's Public Golf Association. "I didn't start playing until after graduating from college, and it was a very humbling experience for me. I continued to play softball and golf at the same time, but my softball swing would mess up my golf swing. Eventually, I retired from softball."

Dokken, who returned to golf just six years ago after a lapse of nearly two decades, hosts an annual charity golf tournament. "The two things I like about golf are that it is a very quiet sport you can play outdoors, and secondly, it's a self-challenging sport," she says. "People don't realize what a physical challenge it is, or the mental stamina and fortitude it takes."

But many golfers are quick to point out the relaxing and less-strenuous aspects of the game. "Other sports, like tennis, require a lot of physical strength and running," says Trikkx owner Molly Kauffman, who played in Dokken's tournament this year. "In golf, you can drink and smoke, and they still call it a sport. Golf you can play till you drop dead."

The sport of choice

Once known as the domain of wealthy, polyester-clad males, golf has seen a transformation in the 1990s, becoming more populist and even sexy. Although most local players can name only one openly lesbian league, the Women's Twilight League, there are plenty of other women's golf organizations that have gay women as members. The Minnesota Women's Public Golf Association (MWPGA), launched in 1947 to serve the needs of the state's female public golfers, currently has 100 member clubs and hosts four amateur tournaments each year. Female members of private courses and country clubs can join the Minnesota Women's Golf Association (MWGA), which has 75 member clubs, nearly 2,400 members, and a calendar that includes seven tournaments each year. There is also the Minnesota Women's Executive Golf League, which encourages women to use golf as part of their business-networking skills. The three women's associations all fall under the umbrella of the state's largest golf organization, the Minnesota Golf Association, which has 250 member clubs.

Still, despite the accessibility of golf, it seems odd that a sport so steeped in formal etiquette and rigid rules should attract the interest of the lesbian population. And then there's the dress code, which only recently relaxed its rules on feminine fashions. "Up until four or five years ago," says Sapa, a golfer and organizer involved in the State Women's Senior Public Links Tournament, "the LPGA also required that pro golfers wear makeup and have their hair done, for instance. Until recently, you wouldn't see anyone wearing a baseball cap."

Women have been playing golf since the first American golf course was established on Long Island in 1891. The first women's tournament was played in 1895, and many local and regional women's golf associations were established just after the turn of the century (the MWGA, for example, got its start in 1915). It wasn't until 1944, however, that the national Women's Professional Golf Association was formed. Corporate sponsorship of the organization (which became the Ladies Professional Golf Association in 1950) was limited, though, and the purses awarded at women's tournaments ranged from nothing to a pittance.  

Still, as one of the few sports that women could play professionally, golf held a lot of appeal for many gay women. "Professional golf is one of the few sports where women are excelling at being successful," says avid golfer Vicki Frank, who plays on the Metro Transit League with her partner, Shari Gingerich. "Even though female players aren't making the money the men are, it's a display of talent. It's women supporting women; it's a pro-woman kind of thing. Before, it was always the women on the outside looking in."

Women remained on the fringes of professional sports until the early '70s. In 1973, tennis player Billie Jean King trounced Bobby Riggs in straight sets, proving women could beat men at their own game. Just a year earlier, the U.S. Congress had approved Title IX of the Education Act, banning discrimination on the basis of gender in any institution that received federal dollars and paving the way for girls and young women in sports. According to the Gender Equity Report on Sports, published by the Women's Sports Foundation, the participation of girls in American sports has soared since the passage of Title IX--from 294,000 in 1971 to 2.37 million in 1997.

"Before Title IX, the only games for women were figure skating, tennis, and golf," says Pat Griffin, author of Strong Women, Deep Closets: Lesbians and Homophobia in Sports.

As for golf, the U.S. Women's Open Championship was first televised in 1963, but viewers were treated to only the final round. It wasn't until 1982 that the full four rounds of a women's tournament--the Nabisco Dinah Shore--was nationally televised.

Begun at a world-class country club in Palm Springs, the Dinah Shore tournament attracted widespread attention during its 1972 launch by securing Colgate as its corporate sponsor and offering the highest amount of prize money ever paid at a women's tournament: $110,000. By 1983, the tournament had become one of the LPGA's four major tournaments, and within a decade it was legendary for its lesbian audience. The Dinah attracts some 29,000 spectators from all over the country and is known informally in gay circles as "The Lesbian Spring Break."

The presence of lesbian fans at the Dinah and other tournaments has not gone unnoticed, however, and the response has often been less than favorable. In 1997, Sports Illustrated published a lengthy article in its Golf Plus supplement on the lesbian party scene in Palm Springs during the Dinah Shore weekend. In response, Titleist and Foot-Joy Worldwide canceled the remainder of their 1997 advertising contracts with the magazine, claiming the photos were "provocative" and departed from the subject of golf.

Two years earlier, CBS golf commentator Ben Wright had ignited a firestorm of criticism when he told a Wilmington Delaware News Journal reporter, that "lesbians in the sport hurt women's golf." Adding insult to injury, the veteran sports broadcaster also claimed that "women are handicapped by having boobs." Wright denied the comments, and CBS publicly accused the journalist, Valerie Helmbreck, of being a lesbian (she isn't) and called into question her professional qualifications. Eventually, Helmbreck was vindicated: CBS fired the 23-year veteran commentator, but paid out the remainder of his four-year contract.

"The only thing positive about [the Ben Wright incident] is that anything is better than silence," says Griffin. "But the LPGA missed an opportunity. They could have said, 'Of course there are lesbian golfers, and they're terrific people.' But instead, there was silence about acknowledging lesbians on the tour."

This silence, Griffin believes, only feeds into homophobia in professional and collegiate sports, including golf. "The lesbian label is used to intimidate women in sports," Griffin says. "It affects everyone who plays. It's saying that sports are for men only, and this only works as long as lesbians are stigmatized. Silence allows it to continue."

Coming out on the greens

Lesbian women are all too aware of the social stigma attached to coming out and the stereotype into which it plays: All female athletes must be dykes. "The stereotype makes it very difficult," says Joah Iannotta, a doctoral student of kinesiology at the University of Minnesota, who is researching women's collegiate sports and the climate of openness created by lesbian coaches. "Let's say a [collegiate] team is comfortable, but the team is getting a lot of flack that all athletes on the team are dykes. There then tends to be a preoccupation with the effect on the team. The lesbian athlete ends up asking herself, 'Will [coming out] make it hard on my teammates? Will it be a bad reflection on my sport?' And straight athletes are concerned about being accused of being lesbians in a homophobic environment too."  

For women who make the cut in professional sports, the stakes are even higher. "For professional athletes," says Griffin, "the biggest fear is loss of endorsement." Martina Navratilova, for example, never received the kind of endorsement that a woman of her talent should have received, Griffin says, while Anna Kournikova, a 17-year-old Russian tennis player who began playing on the women's tour in 1997, has many endorsements. "And she hasn't even won a tournament yet," the researcher adds.

"With all the lesbian athletes there are, we can count how many lesbians have come out on one hand," Griffin continues. "Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King are retired. The only active professional athletes who are out are Muffin Spencer-Devlin, who isn't necessarily a household name, and Patty Sheehan who is at the end of her career."

Both Spencer-Devlin and Sheehan are professional golfers. In 1996, after telling a Sports Illustrated reporter she was gay, Spencer-Devlin became the first out lesbian golfer in the 46-year history of the LPGA. With three LPGA wins in her 18 years on the tour, the 42-year-old Spencer-Devlin has retained endorsement packages with Callaway Golf and MET-Rx USA Inc. (a company that manufactures food supplements), as well as her loyal fan base. And in March of this year, five-time majors champion and Hall-of-Famer Patty Sheehan confirmed a suspicion that lesbian fans had had for a long time: In an article in Golf World, Sheehan let it be known that she and her partner and manager of 12 years, Rebecca Gaston, were adopting a child.

The silence surrounding lesbian participation in golf reaches to the local level as well, although lesbian golf fans interviewed for this article emphasized that being publicly out is not necessarily a significant issue in the realm of local golf.

The subject of lesbians on the course is a nonissue, says MWGA women's coordinator Paula Lutz. "I don't think anybody really thinks about it. It's never come up at any of the board meetings. We only talk about golf."

As for Minnesota's league golfers, MWPGA board member Zappetillo says, "They're not openly out or flagrant, but they are out. On my league there has been no discrimination." (Several local professional and amateur golfers contacted for this article did not return calls by press time.)

Local link lovers

For the most part, golf serves as a social outlet for Twin Cities lesbians. Minneapolis and St. Paul play host to a few lesbian-identified or lesbian-organized leagues and tournaments. For the past five years in mid-June, Dokken has hosted the Dizzy Dokken's Charity Golf Tournament, which benefits Camp Heartland, a day camp for children dealing with HIV/AIDS. "The tournament draws a cross-section of the human race," says Dokken. "We have everything from millionaires and lawyers to transvestites and flight attendants." The tournament has women's, men's, and mixed divisions.

Twin Cities-based WomenWorks has also hosted in recent years an annual 18-hole tournament for members and anyone interested in playing the game. The nonprofit lesbian organization, which donates its event proceeds to local organizations that serve or support lesbian women, chose to add a golfing event to its schedule due to the popularity of the sport. Last year, 72 women participated in the tournament held at Como Golf Course in St. Paul. No WomenWorks tournament has been scheduled for this year, however.

On Thursday nights at the Highland Golf Course in St. Paul, an organized league for lesbians has been playing for nearly 10 years. Organizer Deb Anderson says the "Women's Twilight League" is basically a social league and includes players of all skill levels. "We're a real casual outing," says Bernice Wasche, who founded the league in 1989. "We set it up for fun, although it has encouraged a lot of women to go on and get lessons, or join other leagues where there is more competition." Anderson says the league hasn't had to advertise this past year because more and more have heard of their group by word of mouth and have shown up for the Thursday night outings.

Of course, these lesbian-run tournaments aren't the only place to find dykes along the fairway. Minnesota's own mini version of the Dinah Shore is the Minnesota LPGA Classic, now called the Rainbow Foods LPGA Classic, which will be played August 17-23 at the Rush Creek Golf Club. This year, defending champion Danielle Ammaccapane, plus 144 golfers, will battle it out for a $600,000 purse. Albeit, the parties aren't as public as the Dinah's, and Nye's Polonaise Room doesn't turn into dyke disco, but the tournament attracts a noticeable presence of lesbians.  

"The volunteer base for the tournament also has a fair amount of lesbians," says golfer Shari Gingerich, who volunteers at the tournament every year. "But basically a lot of the women who volunteer just like to see women play good golf. That's the draw."

"The tournament really is an event for the lesbian community," says golfer and regular tournament-goer, Kathy Shaughnessy. "There are very few women's professional sporting events here in the Twin Cities."

A show of support to keep these types of professional women's sporting events in town is another reason lesbians are drawn to the local tournament. "Lesbians involved in golf have been very, very supportive of the tournament so that it stays," says Kauffman. "Then we don't have to travel to Palm Springs to see women play." In turn, adds Kauffman, "The LPGA tournament has generated a lot of interest in the lesbian community to play the game."

But women who enter the sport, it seems, should be prepared to fall in love, neglect their friends, and abandon other hobbies. As one passionate golfer says, "Once you get hooked, it's better than sex."

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