The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews might be moving with glacial speed towards accepting women as members but at the coalface of professional golf, Hazel Kavanagh continues to break down barriers of discrimination.
Spectators at last year’s Cassidy Golf sponsored PGA Irish Championship could have been forgiven for doing a double-take as they watched her tee off at Roganstown Golf and Country Club, following in the footsteps of Marian Riordan, who missed the cut by a stroke at The European Club in 2009.
While Irish women have excelled in the amateur game, few have made the move into the professional ranks and discrimination against women golfers is still prevalent, though diminishing, in some dark corners of Ireland.
That doesn’t happen amongst her fellow PGA professionals, of course, and Kavanagh proved she’s as good as any man when she made the cut and finished tied for 38th in a 100-strong field in the Irish Championship behind eventual winner Michael McGeady.
“The reactions you get can be quite funny,” laughs Hazel, who is doing the second year of her PGA apprenticeship at The Carr Golf Centre at Spawell in Dublin. “In fact, when I rang to book a practice round for the Irish PGA, the girl who answered the phone said, ‘I think you’ve got the wrong dates.’
“I assured here that I hadn’t and she said, ‘No, I think you have it all wrong because this is a men’s tournament, you can’t be playing it.’
“So we started all over again and said, ‘I am actually playing in it.’ And she was all apologies, ‘I’m so sorry, now can we look after you.’
“She was taken aback a bit or maybe thinking I was trying to wangle a free round of golf but I get a great reaction from clients.”
Irish Ladies Strokeplay champion in 1994 and 1998, Hazel represented Ireland at amateur level from 1998 to 2001 and earned Vagliano Trophy selection for Great Britain and Ireland in 1995.
She got her Ladies European Tour card at the first attempt at the age of 29 for the 2002 season and played on the LET circuit for 10 years, where she earned more than €62,000 in prize money and claimed two Top-10 finishes before turning her attention to teaching full time.
“I’ve been in Spawell since I stopped playing and I love it,” says the 41-year old. “When I left the tour at the end of 2010, I joined the PGA straight away. It seemed like the natural thing to do.
“I haven’t done any study work since my Leaving so it is hard to get back into when you are not used to it.
“There are four modules - sports science, business, golf coaching and equipment technology. I’ve a 2000 word report to write on club head design so it is hard work. Gary Murphy is doing it too and it is funny because we are around the same age - 41 - and all the other assistants are about 15.”
Her performance in the Irish Championship turned a few heads as she shot rounds of 78, 74, 72 and 71 to earn a modest €230.
“I played in around seven events last year and hopefully I’ll play in a few more this year,” she says. “In the Irish Region of the PGA, women play a course that is between 10 and 14 percent shorter than the men’s course, so I have an advantage on some of the holes and a disadvantage on others.
“Some of the other women professionals might play a little more if the courses weren’t so long and tough because you can be put off if you’ve had a few bad rounds. It doesn’t do a lot for your confidence.”
While playing the game has always been her first love, Hazel is thoroughly enjoying her career teaching the game and slowly built up a loyal clientele at Spawell.
“I have a great mix of clients and many of them are men who have been coming to me for years and they tells there friends, so a lot of it is word of mouth. I do a lot of work with ladies and schools too and I really enjoy that.”
She believes there is still a way to go before women golfers are welcomed with open arms by all men, having heard her share of horror stories.
“I had a lady the other day who has been playing for five years and she was about to give it up because she was drawn with a man who played off two and he was laughing at her the whole way around,” Hazel explains. “She was so upset about what happened.
“Then I had another lady who plays at a club in Dublin and she was so upset after a man asked her to leave the course because she wasn’t that good. It’s just horrendous. If somebody had told me that story, I wouldn’t have believed it.
“What’s more amazing is that she was asked to write a letter of apology to him by the club. That’s just outrageous. There is still a small bit of discrimination still out there but there are certainly more women playing and that’s fantastic.
“I would encourage more women to go into the professional game though the tour is hard because you are leaving the ILGU where you are looked after so well and then left to your own devices. You think you are great as an amateur and then you get out there and it is a big shock to the system. Myself and Suzie Fanagan turned and Aideen Rogers had already left it so nobody really knew what it was all about.
“Everyone says I should have done my PGA training years ago but as a colleague said to me, you are better off having your playing experience under your belt. A lot of guys turn professional and qualify but don’t have the same experience of playing. I am so glad I am doing it now because I always wanted to play.”
She's not the only Irish woman making huge strides in the ranks of the PGA. Gillian Burrell, who was honoured with the prestigious President’s Award for Golf Development by the PGAs of Europe last year, is PGA Fellow Professional and will soon be a Level 3 Tutor, the teaching equivalent of demigod.
Accepting her award, she summed up the role of the coach (and possibly the role of women in golf) when she said: “As the Irish poet and playwright, Oscar Wilde, said: ‘The aim of life is self-development, to realise ones nature perfectly, that’s what each of us is here for.’"