Golfing with confidence: Portage Lake Golf Course sees increase in participation of ladies’ league

Portage Lake Golf Course general manager Erik Crowley talks with a member of the ladies’ league before a round on Tuesday, June 11, at the course in Houghton. (Daver Karnosky/Daily Mining Gazette)

HOUGHTON — Over time, the sport of golf, like many others, has been driven by men. That has often led to difficulties in getting women interested in playing, thanks to, oftentimes, the steep learning curve among other things.

When Portage Lake Golf Course general manager Erik Crowley took over at the course, the ladies’ league had dropped from a participation of around 60 players down to about 16-18, which meant there was little room for newer, or less experienced, golfers to find a way to fit in easily.

This was not an issue that was new to him.

“It’s not really a surprise, for a lot of (people), not just in Houghton or the Keweenaw, really, but all over the country, it’s not a secret that golf has been kind of a male, I don’t want to say dominated, but a male driven sport,” he said. “The ladies sometimes, oftentimes, are not catered to in the same lens as the men.”

In his previous job before moving to the Copper Country, Crowley saw a chance to improve numbers for the course he worked at in California.

Women prepare their carts before starting their round at the Portage Lake Golf Course on Tuesday, June 11, in Houghton. (Daver Karnosky/Daily Mining Gazette)

“When I was out at Rancho La Quinta, I was very fortunate that I got put in charge of the RLQ Ladies Putters the first year as an intern, and then I got to run the ladies’ game days,” he said. “The RLQ Ladies Putters group was, I think, 50 or 60 gals strong. We would set up a putt course for them every week, and that’s what they would come out and do. A lot of them were not 18-hole golfers, or they wouldn’t necessarily play nine, but they would come out and enjoy the facility and take part in this programming.”

So, he took advantage of the opportunity and found a way to make it his.

“So, since I was an intern, that ladies golf, and that demographic, has been special to me, specifically,” he said. “I’ve always looked for ways to improve that at the other facilities that I’ve been, because it’s really nice to see it done really well.

“Then, when you go to other areas, where it’s just kind of an afterthought, (I notice) how strongly that sticks out to me.”

Crowley was excited for the golfers who were already participating in the ladies’ league at PLGC, but he also wanted to help others find a way to enjoy the chance to participate as well.

“When I came here, the ladies group and the ladies League, I think the first year that I was in the chair, was 16, or maybe 18, players,” he said. “I think part of the reason (for) that number was the gals that were participating that year were all pretty high-level golfers, and that’s fantastic. They were very proficient, able to get around the course very well, and score, but that’s not all gals.”

One of the first steps towards improving the numbers at the league level is introducing more younger girls to the game at an earlier age.

“For a lot of our ladies, for one reason or another, (they are) just not introduced to golf at a young age,” Crowley said. “It’s nice to see that changing. We’re seeing a change in our Little Chippers, and some of the other programming that we do, in the golf instruction. It seems like we’re constantly giving lessons to more and more girls in their teenage years than we ever have.”

Crowley admits that it is much harder to get comfortable with golf as an adult.

“When you’re trying to get into golf as an adult, it is a little bit more stressful, just because it’s uncomfortable,” he said. “Nobody likes to be bad at something and do that in front of people. It can be stressful.”

So, a solution that he came up with to increase participation at PLGC was to introduce other ways for women to compete, so that they would not be intimidated by the 16-18 high-end golfers who were already competing.

“Last year, what we did was we piloted this idea of we’re gonna keep doing the competitive golf thing, and allow and fully support that. We want the gals that can to come out, play their own ball and enjoy some competitive atmosphere,” he said. “But, for those that don’t, is there a (we wanted to) get them out, get them moving through the course efficiently, where it’s not a hindrance on pace or things like that.”

What Crowley and his staff settled on was a scramble format, which turned into a hit from the moment they introduced it.

“We piloted this scramble option, so, if you wanted to come out, and you wanted to do just scramble for fun, come out, enjoy the weather, hit the ball, kind of learn and be out on the golf course, that was kind of the option,” he said. “So first to second year, I think maybe there were 34 total last year. We also opened up a couple of slots in the morning, because some of our lady golfers are retired, and some of us want to get up and get our work done early, and so that we can use the rest of the day for whatever else that we would like to do.

“This year, I think we’re at 60 ladies for the league.”

With the new option, Crowley feels that the PLGC’s ladies’ league has become a real draw.

“It seems to be that we’re pretty well split down the middle. There might even be more participating in that recreational format that are just coming out to scramble,” he said. “It’s such a wonderful opportunity and environment for the gals to come out, enjoy the golf course, enjoy company, and socialize before and after.

“The first night that we were here, I think we had 45 for our opening night because it was the fun night. We had something like 45, 48 that first night, and all of them were back in the clubhouse socializing, having a couple of drinks after the round. That’s one of the real strong benefits of being at the golf course, is you get the opportunity to meet people in a low-stress environment, and that opportunity to socialize isn’t really well replicated in a lot of other recreational environments. So that is kind of something that I want to create that environment and continue to foster that programming for our lady golfers.”

With women’s sports having a moment at the professional level right now, thanks to the success of the Professional Women’s Hockey League and the current excitement over the current crop of rookies in the WNBA, the atmosphere for women’s sports is strong. Crowley is seeing more women show confidence by joining the ladies’ league with the new format.

“It’s not a secret that I’m willing to kind of test things out and pilot things,” he said. “So, one of the questions (recently) was, ‘Well, if I’m a competitive player, am I allowed to play with a scramble player?’ To me it’s, ‘Yes. Yes. Let’s make this open and accessible.’ I don’t want anybody to feel as though they can’t. We will have programming weeks, maybe, that there’s a format that says, ‘OK, it’s a foursome game, and so we’ll have all those people together.’ But, (we have) some really wonderful interactions of gals that think that, ‘We’re not very good. We can’t play with you.’ The competitive players (are) being very welcoming and very, ‘Oh, no, it’s fine. Please join. We would love to have you.'”

While there have been some small issues, mainly based around pace of play, Crowley feels like things are going quite well, and he is hopeful that as players gain confidence, it will show in how they perform on the course.

“Everybody has been very welcoming, and the new gals are excited to just be at the golf course,” he said. “They appreciate the environment and having the space that’s kind of their own on Tuesday nights. They come in and they take over the Par and Grill when they come off, and they have their own nine that’s designated. It is something that feels very much like it’s their own, and I think that the new gals really enjoy that, the players doing the recreation or scramble format really like that.

“I can’t tell you how many of the competitive golfers that have been doing the ladies’ league for years have complemented, or maybe not complimented, but acknowledged excitedly, that there are so many gals here and this is so wonderful to see. Our competitive golfers are just excited to see growth and see new faces. It’s an exciting feeling on Tuesday nights.”


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