Hazel Kavanagh didn’t set out to break any glass ceiling but, without intention or a trace of hubris, she has quietly put her three-wood through it.

The Ballinteer native used to play alongside Pádraig Harrington as a junior and is blessed with the same cheerful, gentle demeanour.

She became the first woman in the British Isles to win a PGA (Professional Golfers’ Association) event in 2014, a historic achievement that no one has matched since.

It came with a little begrudgery from some male colleagues but the only thing that niggles her is why so few of the golfing sisterhood don’t join her, either as pros or amateurs.

After quitting the women’s European Tour (LET) in 2012 Kavanagh (43) enrolled to join the PGA, which now necessitates a three-year degree course through Birmingham University of online studies, practical assessments, twice-yearly visits to The Belfry and fees of £15,000.

On the LET, Kavanagh competed against 126 women but there was only a handful in her PGA class of 60.

While completing it, she continued teaching at the Spawell in Templeogue and began competing on the Irish club pros’ PGA circuit.

A rule change in the last five years allows women play a slightly shorter course (10 to 14 per cent) than their male counterparts yet, again, she was struck by the gender imbalance.

There are roughly 300 club professionals in Ireland and only 20 are female. One third of the men compete on the circuit but only a handful of women like Kavanagh, Rebecca Codd (still on the LET), Maura Morrin, Charlene Reid and Dearbhla Behan regularly join them.

Kavanagh has proved she is more than capable of holding her own.

She finished 20th on the Irish PGA’s order of merit two years ago and 28th last year, when she had eight top-10 finishes.

So how did her largely male colleagues react when she birdied four of the last five to win that historic PGA event in Arklow GC by one stroke in June 2014?

“Most of them were thrilled and said it was great publicity for the region but some of were very annoyed. They gave out that I wasn’t off the same tee boxes as them. You can’t win sometimes,” Kavanagh says with a wry grin.

“You get that all the time but it doesn’t bother me. You can’t let it. It used to annoy me when I’d arrive at a tournament and they’d say ‘oh you’re off the junior tees today’ but when you get that every week it goes straight over your head.

“The difference (in tee position) can be anything from an inch, three feet or 20 yards, it all depends on the course,” she explains.

She played a practice round once “with a certain person. My tee box was 10 yards in front of his and he goes ‘that’s a disgrace! Look how far ahead you are!’ We both tee off, he’s 20-30 yards ahead of me and I’m like ‘how can you give out?’ It’s insane.

“Even if I landed level with him he’ll hit a six-iron in, I’ll hit a four-iron in, it’s never the same. The man will always be longer.”

She has been well able to mix it with them though so how does she do it?

“Most of the others (female PGA players) were never on European Tour, where you get used to playing massive courses,” she says.

A decade on the LET, where she was back to Q-School nearly every second year, scarred but toughened her.

“The one year I kept my card I finished 40-something and won about €45,000 but a lot of the time it was torture, I was a basket case,” she admits.

“When you’re used to shooting low numbers as an amateur (she played off +2 for the Grange) you think it’ll be a piece of cake but you don’t have the mindset of how to score, how to get around a golf course under pressure.

“It’s about having a ‘go-to’ shot too. You need to know how to shape the ball, not hit the same swing all the time. I was quite a natural golfer but I didn’t have a ‘go-to’ shot back then which I have now.”

She had two top-10 finishes, including a third, yet never attracted one sponsor. Her only funding came from via the Sports Council so life was a gruelling whirl of teaching, travelling and competition.

“It’s a sort of a Catch-22. You don’t get the publicity unless you play well and one just feeds the other. You’d always be penny-pinching. When you don’t have a sponsor it’s like gambling on yourself every year.”

Caddies cost €800 a-week. Kavanagh rarely employed one but actually had one on a sobering occasion at the German Open.

Her caddy’s wife was due to give birth any day so, mid-tee, he made a quiet call to her.

Kavanagh’s playing partner immediately threw a fit, pointing out that it was illegal to make phone-calls during a round.

“She went bananas! Refused to play on, called the referee, then the tournament director, wouldn’t sign my card, basically tried to get me disqualified. That affected me for weeks because there was uproar. The caddies went mad, the players’ council got involved, it was terrible.

“You need to be able to deal with stuff like that. The tour is really tough.

“If I did it all again I’d spend money to make money and I’d also build a support team around me. Our amateurs today have that, they’re more like semi-pros. The ILGU has a high-performance unit now. We just had to fend for ourselves.”

The wealth of skill and mental fortitude she banked on the women’s tour is now paying dividends in the PGA.

“I’m just used to slashing it around and fighting for a score. It’s not that I’m playing much better than the other girls, I’m just used to grinding it out,” she says modestly.

Her only quibble is that more women don’t join her, even as amateurs.

The PGA circuit includes Pro-Ams in which any female golfers, no matter what their handicaps, can enter, yet they rarely do.

Kavanagh recalls playing Pro-Ams on the LET where her male partners would happily admit they were only playing for two weeks.

“You’d meet a woman afterwards, working for the same company. Ask them why they didn’t play and they’d say ‘ah, I’m only playing two years.’

“Guys will go out and lose a million golf balls, hit it sideways and lash it into the trees but women won’t go out unless they’re competent, they won’t play in pro-Ams in case they don’t play well!”

She’d love to see more women, of every level, experiencing the fun of Pro-Ams and believes the PGA could set up more courses that are fairer to them and her fellow pros.

Her next goal is to finish top-10 on the order of merit and gender battles have simply never motivated her.

“I’m doing it for myself really and also, I suppose, for my clients,” she smiles.

“Some of the guys I teach have been with me for years. When I was on the Tour they used to look up my results and ask me about them and they do the same now. It’s so funny.

“They’ll come in and ask ‘what happened you on the 15th yesterday?’ I just love that.”


From http://www.irishtimes.com/


Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times