'It's Great For Clubs To Say They Are Women Friendly But They Need To Demonstrate That'
Sarah Bennett on her year as PGA Captain and how she would like the women's game to evolve and progress
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If you want an idea of what sort of character Sarah Bennett is then you only have to touch upon her golfing history. In 2005 the former Ladies European Tour player’s career came to a sudden halt when she was bedridden for four months due to a severe balance disorder. This illness has left her with a permanent disability loss of 95 per cent of her balance on one side – she was told that she would never play golf again and now performs daily neuro rehab exercises to help manage it.
This hasn't stopped her charitable work and this year her work with Guy's Cancer Centre will result in the first ever worldwide research and published paper on thymic carcinoma. This very rare chest cancer affects only one in a million and sadly took the life of her friend, avid golfer and England Regional Volunteer manager Wendy Lodder.
To date Bennett has raised £45,000 via golf days and running a half marathon last year and by walking 15 miles on what would have been Wendy's birthday.
In April this year she will finish her one-year term as the PGA Captain having become only the second female captain following her close friend and mentor, the late Beverly Lewis into the role.
'When I was invited to become PGA Captain in 2022 I obviously had no-one to discuss my ideas. I spent some time assessing my objectives, which I have managed to achieve, and I wanted to place a high regard on the membership as far as I could so meeting as many of our players at tournaments was key.
Part of those plans is to grow the WPGA as the Vice Chair. I am keen to develop accessibility for women who would like to enter the profession gaining qualified PGA Professional status. It is imperative we have role models and support for those young players commencing their careers.
Gone are the days where sole roles included either coaching or managing a pro shop, these days there are so many other positions in the industry which is a message that we still need to get out there. There is a lot of movement in that area with higher positions for women within our Association and industry which will provide other women with the confidence to strive for these once male-dominated roles.
Last year I instigated a mixed event with a completely different format which was one of my key goals and I am passionate about growing this. I am determined to build this into a national event with a grand final. The feedback was fantastic from the pros and, again, we need to get that out to the membership. One change was the format as we don't want to keep playing strokeplay events all the time – we are all golf pros but many of us struggle to muster the confidence to participate in strokeplay events so Stableford was ideal.
We didn't have an order of merit trophy so I purchased a silver plate named the Sarah Bennett WPGA Order of Merit trophy which I present at our final event of the year.
When Lysa Jones and I worked with England Golf, which was an amazing opportunity, we bounced ideas off each other but I believe we are the only two women to have held coaching roles with England Golf. You can’t have a better mentor than Graham Walker, who Lysa has worked with for many years. I miss working with fellow Professionals which is why I would like to pursue the mentorship role. I would like to put myself forward as a mentor for players and coaches embarking on their careers. I feel it is important to be there as a support network covering a multitude of roles and I want to feel that I am approachable and, if I don’t have the answer, I will find one for the players.
I recently attended my 30th PGA Show in Orlando and I spoke to a lot of people where I would be introduced as the Captain of the PGA. A lot of people assumed it was the WPGA. Fortunately my colleagues would explain the situation which was equivalent to the President of the PGA of America. On the upside it has been totally humbling and I have been blown away with the kind comments that I have received saying what a fantastic job I have done. Many moments have been quite surreal as you really have no idea how your efforts are being viewed. I often think of Bev up there saying “Sarah just be yourself’ and that’s all that I was ever going to be as Captain and hopefully my character and personality has helped that. I am sure I will just sit down after the handover and really have the time to reflect on the enormity of the role which has certainly taken me out of my comfort zone.
I am confident that another WPGA Member will be selected for the role based on their credentials alone. I was assured I was not invited for the role due to my gender but instead my standing within the Association. I know for sure we definitely have Members who are certainly up to the task.
I didn’t realise there would be so many speeches but the Peter Alliss tribute ranks amongst my greatest achievement especially following the fantastic presenter Steve Rider. I must admit when I was speaking alongside Judy Rankin and Jean van de Velde I did quake in my shoes somewhat and I knew that I had to nail my four-and-a-half-minute speech at the Home of Golf.
Nothing can really prepare you for the speeches but I really enjoyed them. Some clients suggested getting a speech writer but, financially, this was not viable and, after all, I know me. All my speeches have been from the heart and dripped with experiences. I have really welcomed the opportunity and, with there being so many, I haven't really had time to over-think things too much. The graduation welcome and motivational speech was particularly enjoyable, 15 minutes interspersed with experiences straight from the heart.
I was recently awarded honorary membership to Colchester GC where I joined when I was 13. Needless to say, I was the only girl junior member. We used to live about 160 yards from the 1st tee and I used to hide behind this big oak tree and, if someone was on their own, I would run out and ask for a game with them. A few years ago I discovered that everyone would say ‘have you been Sarahed yet!?’
I achieved a scratch handicap within three years of starting the game before turning pro off plus 4. I would play in the club competitions playing with the men and I still play now with a good friend who holds the course record of 63. It's been amazing to rekindle our golfing lives together. It seems like yesterday and your junior golfing memories can be very vivid. I want teenage girls interested in the game to have a role model which is so important and I would like to set up a buddy system within Essex to help develop and maintain players.
If someone was to ask me how I would like golf to look in the future then I would like to see fewer restrictions with more times for women to play and a lot more relaxed environment. It's great for clubs to say they are women friendly but they need to demonstrate that. We need the right facilities like some decent changing rooms rather than one small cubicle at the end of the clubhouse.
With the retail side of things, we don’t always want pink. At the PGA Show they had so many athletic-looking offerings with leggings and fashionable hoodies. Many women don’t like the term 'ladies’ golf clubs' so we could maybe change the length and set-up of the clubs so it is almost like the US kids’ coding. I play with men’s length clubs as I'm tall and I'm not the only one.
Even food choice is important. I have heard women say that they have attended society days and were only offered sausage, egg and chips as their meal. Now I will enjoy and eat that, don’t get me wrong, but maybe think of an alternative offering. Instead of just one meal option of a pint and a fry-up, maybe offer a Prosecco and afternoon tea!'
Location: Three Rivers Golf & Country Club
Sarah will become just the second female to Captain the PGA in 2022, replacing Bernard Gallacher. As well as being a dedicated and well-respected coach in Essex, Bennett is well-known for the hours she devotes to helping the less fortunate. She won the Toby Sunderland Award in 2018, an accolade to celebrate the many wide-ranging charitable achievements by PGA professionals across Great Britain and Ireland.
Most common fault:
The fact the loft is key in the delivery and not to scoop, lift or get under the ball. A visual magnetic pointer shows the varying loft. Many clients think the divot is behind the ball not actually in front. I demonstrate with a paint line or with a tee in front of the ball which really assists with their understanding. From a performance point of view, always end every round with a positive scenario such as “What were your three best shots of the day?” so the mental aspect of the game is vital.
Greatest teaching success story:
I set up the Golf Fore Recovery programme for injured service personnel providing the chaps with a sport which they can play together and aid their mental well-being after serious life-changing injuries. I had to adapt very quickly as a coach and be flexible with my delivery finding a number of different ways to impart the information.
Most common advice:
I always explain the practice process “Effective practice” so start with blocked practice working on the technical elements. I will provide game-based practice which can be used at any venue with an achievable target. I often suggest this is carried out with their partners to encourage a little competition upon completion of the session. Too many clients will just hit too many balls at the range leading to injury, which I explain. So, making each ball count. I will suggest on course games too, such as worst ball so you're not scoring all the time.
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