Visit any public or private golf course, any day of the week, and you'll spot the same things. Manicured trees and flush fairways. Ecstatic fist pumps, as hacks somehow chip it near the cup. Displays of intense frustration, as the scratch golfers blow 4-ft. putts.
Most of all, you'll see guys. Lots and lots of guys, in ill-striped shirts, in ill-fitting pants and with ill-considered caps on their balding heads. To combat this mass of masculinity on the nation's golf courses, a growing Las Vegasbased company called Play Golf Designs has started a fairway-beautification project. Founded by Nisha Sadekar, a former LPGA prospect, Play Golf Designs offers a simple service. For a substantial fee, one of the company's roster of beautiful female professional golfers will play a round or two with you and your co-workers at a corporate outing, with your clients who need to be schmoozed or just with you and your buddies during a bachelor party. "One of the girls will show up on the golf course and change the day," says Sadekar, 28, who grew up playing in Toronto. "They'll liven things up. When you see these beautiful women, with their smiles, fashion sense and great skill, it rubs off on you." (See the worst of golf fashion.)
And how. The company is not shy about playing up the sexuality of its golfers, a strategy that disturbs some women's sports advocates. Two women, standing back to back in high heels, tight sleeveless shirts and black shorts shorter than a tap-in putt, greet visitors to the company's website, PlayGolfDesigns.com. "Whenever anyone, including the athletes themselves, chooses to portray female athletes in other than sport-appropriate attire on the golf course, like these two golfers on the fairway, they're selling a sexual stereotype, not a skilled professional golfer," says Donna Lopiano, former CEO of the Women's Sports Foundation and the current president of Sports Management Resources. "It offends me as a woman and fan of women's professional golf. Even the course superintendent wouldn't allow them on the course unless it was to aerate the fairways with their spiked heels."
The website's home page reads, "Redefining the World of Golf Entertainment." At first glance, it's easy to wonder if the site is advertising some kind of golf-escort service. Are marketing ploys like Play Golf Designs setting women's sports back a decade or two? "When women athletes are treated as sex objects, it runs contrary to the spirit of equality that laws like Title IX are intended to promote," says Jocelyn Samuels, vice president for education and employment at the National Women's Law Center. (See the top 10 female sports heroes.)
While the Play Golf Designs pros won't actually wear high heels as they shoot a round with your clients, don't expect khakis and a cardigan. The fashion tastes of each woman differ, but a few have indeed dressed on the course like spring-break barmaids. To Sadekar, the attire is part of the attraction, and everyone just needs to lighten up. "Look at what the women's tennis players get to wear," she says. "Unfortunately, as golfers we get shafted. Khakis just aren't cool."
To be sure, some players don't mind dressing up and showing off their skills to loutish men. "There's this terrible stigma that if you're attractive, you can't play sports," says Anna Rawson, the rising LPGA star who was named Maxim's Sexiest New Athlete in February 2008. "Men are shocked by how good we are." Many are working for Sadekar to help make ends meet. Most Play Golf Designs players are on the futures tour, still chasing their fragile big-league dreams. By playing in corporate junkets and on bachelor-party outings, these women can supplement their sparse income. And while the terms of individual player contracts are confidential, Play Golf Designs is commanding impressive fees from $2,500 to $25,000 for their golfers, depending on the size and scope of the outing. This income is particularly important in today's game, where sponsorship dollars are scarce (in fact, the LPGA has been forced to cancel several tournaments because of lackluster sponsorship support). (See pictures of the Ryder Cup.)
Sadekar insists she's picking up the LPGA's slack. "We feel like the LPGA isn't marketing players the way they should be marketed," says Sadekar. "The door is wide open for us, and the opportunities are endless." By promising extra income and exposure to a broader audience, she's shooting to hire more LPGA pros as the tour struggles in a sour economy and crowded sports landscape. She points to the lack of buzz surrounding the world's top-ranked women's golfer, Lorena Ochoa, as an example of the LPGA's ineptitude. "With every one of our players, everyone asks, What kind of bag is that? What kind of shirt is that?" says Sadekar. "When you look at Lorena Ochoa, you already know the answers. People take notice of our women. People talk. Who wants to talk about Lorena Ochoa? Who cares?"
The LPGA, no surprise, has a different spin. "Any characterization of Lorena Ochoa other than her being an ideal model of what makes the LPGA great is ill-informed," says David Higdon, the LPGA's communications chief. Does Higdon find the website and the Play Golf Designs concept in any way offensive? "We haven't had a chance to evaluate the site and what it's really being used for," he says.
Don't expect Sadekar to care all that much about the LPGA's input. "You know what? Our women should be proud that they're hip, hot and fun and can bust it 250 yards off a tee," she says. "They've got the entire package. Why not play it all up?" Fair point. But as women fight for mainstream appreciation of their athletic skills, is her company playing it up too much?