2005: Y not?

Two snapshots of society tell all you need to know about how – and how much – contemporary women spend when they shop.

Recently, under the “What’s New” handbag section of bloomingdales.com, a taupe Marc Jacobs Quilted Stella Bag was featured for a cool $1,300. Thousands of women are throwing caution (and apparently reason) to the wind these days to accessorize their shoulders.

A woman pries open her Prada bag at Wal-Mart to purchase detergent. Welcome to the world of “trading up,” where middle-class America isn’t afraid to scrimp on one end to splurge for luxury at the other.

By themselves, these cultural vignettes may appear to have little to do with golf. But they are relevant because they provide a peek into the psyche of modern women, whether they’re golfers, homemakers or executives.

Just as important, they reveal the cultural incubator that is shaping the behavior of tomorrow’s consumers: the young women of Generation Y.

These so-called “echo boomers,” or children of baby boomers, form the rank-and-file of teenagers and twentysomethings who will spend today – and even more tomorrow.

More affluent than any of their predecessors. More confident of their athletic abilities than ever before. Fearless of mixing it up with boys and men. And well taught by Dr. Phil and Oprah, who have counseled supermoms and career-driven women to invest in “me time,” using anything from a massage to a cashmere sweater to soothe a worn-out soul.

On paper, Gen Y women show unprecedented promise to become good golfers and even better buyers. It’s not a stretch to imagine these free-spending females spending their “me time” on the course, toting shiny new clubs over their shoulders in lieu of a Louis Vuitton.

For decades, Barbara Romack, a 73-year-old teaching instructor and former LPGA player who lives in Atlantis, Fla., has watched women at the club level play with hand-me-down sets. For high-handicappers especially, she says, convincing women to purchase a new club often is a tough sell.

Romack, however, marvels at the younger generation’s obsession with owning the “gotta-have-it” item and their blank-check mentality to buy it.

“If you’re not going to go spend $1,200 on a purse, then you’re not going to have a purse,” says Romack with a laugh after reading an article about the red-hot, multibillion-dollar handbag business.

“(Women today) want to look good, whether we’re going to the opera or to the gym. Whatever we do, we always want to look good.”

Indeed, image has never been bigger.

Translation for the golf industry, according to consumer experts: Gen Y women don’t necessarily have to be “gearheads” or avid golfers to buy premium equipment. If there ever was a generation of women willing to plop down a few Benjamins for a new set of sticks, this is the one.

Of course, the operative word here is “if.” It’s far too premature for golf executives to be singing, “It’s raining women.” Demographic conditions indicate a golf boom lies within Gen Y, but without a catalyst to ignite it, these women could just as easily stay away from the game.

Though they’re different from their mothers, they’re still women and some basic truths remain: Their passion for sports, in general, is less than that of men. And they’re still likely to fade from golf’s radar in their 30s and 40s when they’re pursuing careers or raising children.

Perhaps, even more challenging for golf, these young women are courted by far more enticing forms of entertainment.

Parents who fret about their children becoming couch potatoes know new evils continuously emerge. The latest to grip youth, especially girls: instant messaging.

“First it was TV, then it was video games, and now you have social interaction online,” says James Chung, president of Reach Advisors, which provides gender and generational research for clients, including the sports and leisure industries.

“What appeals to women, particularly this group (Gen Y), is getting together and being social. IM allows you to do that without ever leaving your room. If golf is going to have any chance, it needs to be an extremely social sport.

It’s difficult to overemphasize the serious competition for their time.”

That, however, doesn’t mean the tradition-bound game should walk away from echo boomers. They are more inclined to be intrigued by sports in general because there are more professional women athletes whom they actually want to emulate.

“Look at Danica Patrick (of IRL racing fame). And Michelle Wie. This is a different era for young women,” Chung says. “Sports for them is not something on the fringe. It’s expected to be part of their lives.”

Especially in golf, role models may have even more influence on Gen Y because so many of the LPGA’s biggest names or soon-to-be stars are their peers: Aside from Wie, there is, to name a few, Paula Creamer, Natalie Gulbis, Grace Park, Cristie Kerr, Lorena Ochoa and Morgan Pressel.

Even without them, the growth of avid junior and collegiate female golfers has flourished in recent years, thanks in large part to Title IX. These active players should help improve participation statistics, but their value to the industry will be far more profound. Not all will join the LPGA, but they well could become club professionals or club champions and boost the number of female “key influencers” who have been sorely missing at the grass-roots level.

Already, there is evidence of their impact on the game.

Says 16-year-old Esther Choe, an American Junior Golf Association Rolex All-American from Scottsdale, Ariz.: “I have people come up and ask what kind of equipment I have. They always want to know what’s good . . . and they don’t want to be left out. If I’m wear something like Adidas, they want to go out and get it.”

As Romack observed, the “in” brands resonate deeply with this set.

“I couldn’t think of anything off the top of my head where brand doesn’t matter – well, I guess food. I don’t care what kind of apple I’m eating,” says Megan Grehan, a 16-year-old from Mamaroneck, N.Y., who played with Choe on the victorious 2005 Junior Solheim Cup team.

Carla Deordna, who plays for the girls’ team at Olympia High School in Orlando, Fla., couldn’t agree more.

“I’m very picky in what I buy,” says Deordna, 16. “My equipment actually has to be Callaway, I don’t know why. And balls have to be Titleist.”

Even though Title IX appears to have delivered a horde of athletic consumers, it is unrealistic to think they won’t struggle with golf.

While the sport’s promoters love to say it’s a game anyone can play for a lifetime, that slogan doesn’t jive with another fundamental truth: Golf is flat-out difficult to master. And generally speaking, women struggle with the game more than men. (According to the National Golf Foundation, the average score for female core golfers – those who play eight or more rounds per year – is 107, compared with 92 for male core golfers.) Women often lack the strength and coordination to generate the clubhead speed necessary to propel the ball through the air – which is essential to enjoying the game.

Even a generation of women athletes who have come of age during Title IX likely will encounter similar challenges.

“Just being an athlete doesn’t mean you’re going to be good at golf, (unlike) a lot of other sports you can just pick up,” says Michele Matyasovsky, 24, who played power forward on Duke University’s women’s basketball team. Matyasovsky’s father introduced her to golf and she played a little bit in high school, but hasn’t become an avid golfer partly because of the practice time it requires.

“I hate not being good at something. It’s so hard,” she says. “I play 18 holes and I’m miserable. Ten holes is my limit.”

Carli Brewer certainly can relate.

“I’ve had a few friends come out and play with me but then when they realize how frustrating it is and how much time it takes (they quit),” she says.

Even Brewer – who has had every opportunity to fall in love with the game (her father runs the Brad Brewer Golf Academy at Shingle Creek Golf Club in Orlando) – thinks her playing days will be limited after college.

“I think I’ll just play on a social basis, or a golf outing for business,” she says. “Probably once a month. I’d still like to know how to hit a ball, teach my kids how to play.”

Brewer’s sentiments define the way many of her peers view golf. For them, it remains a great activity to pursue (“I play golf”), but it doesn’t define them (“I am a golfer.”)

Still, one legacy of Title IX is the self-confidence it has instilled in women, regardless of their endeavor. And that’s bound to help them enjoy and participate in a game that’s sure to remain male-dominated.

As Olympia’s fall golf season neared an end, the girls’ and boys’ teams gathered on the range at Orlando’s Grand Cypress Resort to prepare for their annual mixed scramble. Anne Sprick, a senior with aspirations to compete for an Ivy League school, calmly swiped balls at one end while Aaron Stewart (son of the late Payne Stewart) boomed drives at the other.

None of the girls seemed apprehensive about pairing with the boys. It was a low-key practice session designed by the coaches with fun in mind. Socializing appeared near the top of the agenda.

“By now you’ve pretty much gotten over it,” said Sprick of gender-induced butterflies. “It’s OK if I duff it or if I top it. That’s part of playing golf, hitting a couple of bad shots. But you recover from it. I don’t think it’s embarrassing.”

Perhaps that’s the most promising thing about Sprick and her brand-conscious peers: They will come back, regardless of their mis-hits.

And maybe they’ll bring along a friend.

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