WHAT THE PAPERS SAY
Women in golf - ProfileWithout a doubt the world of golf is ruled by men, for men. From the preferential treatment received at almost every club in the country through to TV coverage of professional events, women get the roughest end of, pardon my masculine phallus obsession, the stick. This is not the worst of the misogynistic golfing world however, for that dubious award must surely go to the golf industry itself, the people responsible for bringing us the golf courses in the first place. Never mind 'glass ceilings', take a look at the reinforced steel doors hung with the unnecessary sign "NO WOMEN ALLOWED". Take heart, there is one woman at least who has simply ignored the bigotry, or maybe she just refuses to listen to it. "Nobody has openly told me that I am not allowed to build golf courses" said Ingrid Eichler, founder, owner and managing director of Contour Golf Ltd., "but very early on I realised that to succeed I would need to be better than the men that I was competing against."
And she is. When the coverage of the Irish Open ('open' to men that is...) is splashed across the TV screens in the summer, look beyond the players and see the golf course that Eichler built. Well, rebuilt in fact. Fota Island Golf Club and the architect, Jeff Howes, had enough foresight and confidence in a woman to employ the Daventry based outfit to completely rebuild the course in preparation for the Open and the results speak for themselves, via Eichler in this instance: "Fota used to be shut for four months every year because it was so wet, this last winter, the wettest on record, it has remained open. We are good, people are beginning to realise that."
The path to this demonstration of excellence has not been straight or narrow. From an initial desire to be a vet, "My 'A' levels weren't good enough.", through a brief encounter with civil engineering, "Not for me...", Eichler wound up studying Agricultural Engineering. It was here that the spark needed to illuminate a career path was garnered. Although she didn't know it, this was the best possible training for a career in golf course construction: indeed Eichler knew next to nothing about golf, let alone that it was possible to earn a living from it. "I didn't play golf then and I don't play now. I would love to learn but I am not going to unless I can devote a lot of time to it. I would hate to play and not be good. Perhaps when I have done all that I can with Contour I will go and play some of the courses that I have worked on." When she does, look out there is a determination in this woman that is more than unusual, it is astonishing.
From the beginning Eichler became aware of being the curiosity, "Right now I am the only woman running a golf course construction company, but I am used to that. Look elsewhere and see how few women engineers there are, in fact I'm not sure that there are any women running any sort of construction company . At college I was the only woman in a class of fifty, it helped me, it nurtured my competitive spirit, more than ever I wanted to be top, to be the best." The disadvantages of being a 'subdued minority' are, rightly, well documented but perhaps there are advantages too? "Getting noticed is a double edged sword, sure it brings an opportunity to shine and be seen to shine but it is so condescending to get noticed purely because I'm a woman."
When Eichler became involved in golf, following stints with VSO and the Ministry of Agriculture, it was her background in drainage engineering and soil science that brought her to the fore. "I came across an advert for a contracts manager with a top golf course construction company. The experience they were looking for - drainage, machinery, soil and water engineering - was ideally suited for me, everything the advert said was 'me'. Finally I had found golf, or it had found me." And it seemed that a glittering career was ahead, before an unexpected problem intervened. "I got on well with near enough everyone, nobody seemed to mind working with or for me but there was one guy who just couldn't get his head round the idea of a woman in this industry. It was pretty intolerable in the end." When all the contracts finished, Eichler was laid off, "Yes, I was hindered along the way. Was it because I am a woman? I think that it probably was. So I had to deal with it, everybody faces difficulties in their working life and I am a great believer in 'bitching' about how unfair it all is. In the end it did me a favour, I own three companies and am doing what I love most, far from being held back I have been given great opportunities." Which might be just a little modest, creating and taking opportunities could be more accurate.
A 'sister doing it for herself' for the last eight years with a staff that remains intensely loyal. "I've never got on better with a boss than I have with Ingrid" said Co-Director and Contracts Manager of Contour Golf Ireland, Liam Cotter who continued, "She has such great knowledge and interest. When I first met her she was working for someone else and it was her job to get the drains put in, four guys with diggers were available and not one of them would walk with her and sort the job out." The actuality was a tad more explicit "No f*!*!*g woman is going to tell me how to dig a drain" was the almost universal response. But Cotter was the exception and his acceptance of Eichler's expertise has paid dividends, "She told me then that she was going to start her own company and that I was going to be her first employee. I though it was pie in the sky but here I am, seven years later. I've been with Ingrid from the start."
Not that Eichler believes that she has no more challenges or has broken all the barriers. "It takes a little time for people to realise that I know what I am talking about," she explained, "The funniest thing is the silence on the other end of the phone when a potential client rings up and asks for a quote or advice. When I say 'Yes, I can come and look at that for you' there is most often an embarrassed pause while they relay that information to their brains and try to assimilate it all. I'm not offended by the surprise, after all it is surprising to find a woman engineer that runs her own business. Can you imagine a guy playing golf with Laura Davies if he doesn't know who she is? A stunned silence after her first drive would be the least of it I expect."
When the two side of the golf world - the industry and the clubs meet, there is very definitely the potential for clashes. "There are certain golf clubs in this country that would not allow me through their front door, or to sit in the bar or even to sit on the sun terrace." mused Eichler. "The possibility is there that I could do a job for such a course, could transform it into something really special and then not be allowed to attend the grand opening celebration because of archaic rules. OK, if that's the way they want it then I must respect that. But ultimately it is their loss, women are the biggest growth market in golf right now and if a club wants to isolate that sector then they must be ready to 'reap the lack of benefit'."
As Contour Golf Ltd.'s influence grows throughout the British Isles and the success of one woman is recognised in the industry then those self same clubs might just have to bite the bullet and realise that behind many good golf courses is a great woman. With hard work and a bit of luck, maybe more golf courses will be built, and perhaps designed, by women for women and the Devil take the bigots.