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Business women are having a ball — thanks to EWGA

For those not fortunate enough to have learned golf as children, walking out on to that first tee as a new golfer with your friends, business associates — or worse — clients, can be a daunting task. But how many people would fake illness to avoid it due to embarrassment over their golf game?

Nancy Oliver did. For years, Oliver — who owned a golf marketing firm in Palm Beach — would make excuses to clients and associates when they asked her to play golf. The truth was, Oliver didn’t know how to play.

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One day, as the lore goes, Oliver could not get out of a golf date with clients. As she watched her male colleagues tee off, she concocted a plan. As her playing partners drove up to the women’s tee, Oliver feigned illness and avoided playing on that particular day.

After the incident, she decided that things had to change. She got together with 28 other business women and formed the Executive Women’s Golf League in West Palm Beach, Fla. That was 1991. The women gathered every Tuesday afternoon to learn and play golf. The difference between this gathering and your average run-of-the mill golf league is that within two years, the EWGL had 20 chapters across the country.

Eventually, Oliver and her husband, Ed, transitioned the for-profit EWGL into the non-profit Executive Women’s Golf Association, which is run by volunteer members throughout the country.

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In 1999, Hollis Kerler was at a sales manager meeting in Miami when she found out about EWGA through another attendee. Interested, Kerler, of Greendale, called EWGA headquarters and discovered there was no Milwaukee chapter.

"Then I uttered the fateful words," Kerler jokes. "I asked, ‘How do you start one?’ and things have kind of just gone from there."

The Milwaukee chapter started in 2000 with 84 members playing in three leagues. Last year, the chapter almost doubled in size and had the second largest percentage increase in the entire country. Kerler said the Milwaukee chapter’s goal is to total more than 200 members in 2002.

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The Milwaukee chapter offers 15 leagues this year, up from eight in 2001, ranging from beginners’ leagues to a "30 and under" handicap league played at tougher courses for better golfers; however, the majority of leagues still encourage a mix of golfers.

Chapter activities include: after work, 9-hole leagues; 18-hole leagues; tournaments; special events; clinics; mentor events — where experienced golfers play with beginners; networking events throughout the year; and all members are required to attend a golf rules and etiquette session before the season starts.

EWGA, with 16,000 members in 99 chapters in the US and Canada, is a force to be reckoned with in the golfing community.

Milwaukee-area women are flocking to join EWGA. At the kick-off event on March 28, at least 60 new members signed up. I joined last year in an effort to force me to get out and play every week and I wanted to check out EWGA.

At the kick off event this year, I asked several members why they joined.

Many said they joined for the obvious networking opportunities, but most said the environment is different when golfing with other women.

"I joined for the practice — I definitely need the practice — and to golf with other women," said Amy Kolb, an assistant vice president at Bank One. "The men tend to be very competitive and, for me, golfing in a business situation with men … they’re always betting and playing 18-holes. To me, this is more relaxing, I enjoy it and I like the 9-hole focus."

"I was interested in networking opportunities with other women and I wanted to play golf," said Carol Connolly, a sales executive. "This met both of my criteria. And in my experience, women are a little more level-headed in playing golf than men."

Others just join to be social. Mary Ellen Buta, a director at Travelers Insurance Company, was transplanted to Milwaukee and wanted to meet people outside of work. Last year, a friend living in Tennessee phoned Buta and the two joined their local EWGA chapters. Each year they get together for a golf vacation, and one of the perks of membership is being able to play on any EWGA-host course at discounted rates. (Silver Spring Country Club in Menomonee Falls is the host course for the Milwaukee chapter.)

Judging by the din at the Milwaukee chapter’s kickoff, EWGA is definitely a social group. That’s not to say that there aren’t some seriously good golfers out there, it’s just that they know when to turn it on and turn it off. During leagues, the competitiveness is turned off.

I played in a league at Silver Spring Country Club during the first half of last season. We suffered through a very soggy season culminated by a final week that featured enough mosquitoes to black out the sun at high noon. My group modified the game by making it more like polo — we’d practically swing and walk at the same time to keep the critters off of us. And miserable though it was, we were all laughing about it, especially once we made it back to the Pro Shop a few quarts lighter.

I’m not great at networking (one of the other reasons I joined), but I got to know a few women fairly well last year, and I suspect I’ll get to know a few more this year. EWGA paid off for me in that regard.

For others who were there to learn more about the game, it paid off, too. The featured speaker at the kickoff was Jane Wood, executive director of Community Health Charities of Wisconsin. Wood came to the EWGA kickoff event in 2001, joined EWGA, joined a league, took lessons and bought clubs — you could say she jumped in feet first — and loved it.

As she said, being involved with 39 charities meant that she was invited to 39 golf events last year, and unlike years prior, Wood said she golfed in quite a few of those events.

"Do you have any idea of what spending 4-1/2 hours in a golf cart with the chairman of your board will do for your organization?" Wood said, recalling one of those golf events that she spent golfing with her chairman. "Our organization moved forward faster than it ever has … and it’s because of EWGA."

The glass ceiling may still exist in businesses in Wisconsin, but at least women — in part because of organizations like EWGA — are breaking through the grass ceiling on the golf course.

To find out more about EWGA, call the hotline at 414-985-EWGA or visit the Web site at

April 12, 2002 Small Business Times, Milwaukee

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