This year marks the 45th anniversary since the passing of Title IX. Before this, women didn’t have the same opportunities as men in the areas of education, employment – and most famously – athletics.
Growing up in a rural area of Texas in the years just before Title IX, golfer Jennifer Alexander found herself carving her own path as a woman – first in the game of golf, then as a mathematics major in college, and eventually as an Air Force Lieutenant Colonel.
Along her revolutionary path, she gained skillsets that would help her break down a little spoken-of institutional barrier that is still well-founded in today’s world of athletics – sports management. Now, as a Ladies Professional Golf Association Class A Teaching & Club Professional, Jennifer is reaching back to help young women break those barriers as a coach, mentor and leader in the world of golf. Jennifer has initiated multiple successful LPGA Girls Golf Programs in California and Nevada, and advised several more national Girls Golf programs. For her work, she has been named a two-time winner of the LPGA Junior Golf Leadership Award, which is presented to the woman golf professional who has demonstrated outstanding accomplishments related to junior golf during the year.
Her Agenda: Tell me a little bit about yourself.
Jennifer Alexander: I’m 65 years old. I’ve been playing golf since I was nine. Before Title IX, I just started playing it because I liked it. Then I talked my mom into golf lessons instead of piano lessons. That was hard – a lot of begging. When I was eleven, I could beat almost every man on our golf course in Texas. I never won any big amateur tournaments, but I came in third once in the Texas women’s amateur event. That was in 1967.
I went to college at Texas Tech University. I majored in math, minored in finance. I joined the ROTC – this was at the end of Vietnam. They were looking for bodies, just to join. I had to wait about a year and a half to go into the Air Force, so I did that. I spent 21 years there [in the Air Force]. I got married in the Air Force. I [worked] at the Pentagon. I retired after 21 years as a Lieutenant Colonel.
Then I got out and became a Vice President at a public corporation that’s not in existence anymore. I was the director of HR, payroll and negotiated the union contracts. I did that for about seven years.
One day my husband and I were on a trip to Hawaii. I saw this ad in Golf Digest – it was called the San Diego Golf Academy back then, but now it’s called the Golf Academy of America in San Diego. When I was in the Air Force I got an MBA from Webster University. So, I really didn’t need any more college. But I went down and looked at it, and I quit my job.
It was the best thing I ever did. I learned so much. I cannot tell you how much I appreciate everything I learned at the Golf Academy of America.
After I graduated from the Golf Academy of America I wanted to become a teaching professional with the LPGA. I got my Class A certificate. It’s a six-year program. I did it in two years. There’s a lot to it. But because I went to the Golf Academy of America I just waltzed right through it. I already had it all.
I started a girl’s golf program. When I started it, there was only about 2,000 girls in the nation in it. Last year, there were 60,000 girls globally. It was all run by LPGA pros.
Her Agenda: That’s an incredible journey. Let’s take it back to the beginning. Talk to me about the time when you were really little and just getting into golf – when you were talking your mom into changing out piano lessons for golf lessons. Before Title IX, I imagine it was hard for any girl to normalize playing sports to her parents or to even have that much access to sports. How did you know you wanted to be an athlete?
Jennifer Alexander: It was an accident. Some boys said, ‘Hey we are going to the golf course. Do you want to come play?’ I went, ‘Okay.’ So I went out there. I used their clubs. I was horrible. But I just thought, man, this is fun.
The next week I talked my parents into letting me go back out there and just hit some balls. It was a nine-hole course. In the middle of Texas. Out there in nowhere. After about six months, I asked my mom and dad, ‘Do you think I could take golf lessons instead of piano lessons?’
They let me do it. But they would bribe me, and ask, ‘How is your room? It’s got to be perfect. You have to make good grades.’ My dad was a rancher. He worked out a deal with the country club. He said, ‘If you let my daughter play out there, you can come hunt deer every fall at my ranch for free.’
I got to go out and practice any time I wanted. And I did. But I still had to make good grades. I would make straight A’s, just so I could go out to the golf course. I did really well. My parents paid for the tournaments. It wasn’t that expensive back then as it is now. But I had a good time. If there had been a golf scholarship for women when I went to school, I would’ve gotten one. I was one of the top young women golfers in Texas when I went to Texas Tech.
Her Agenda: Did you ever face a time when playing golf as a young woman became an issue?
Jennifer Alexander: I was on the boy’s golf team in high school and the University Interscholastic League wouldn’t let me play in any tournaments because I was a girl. The boys were upset because I was the best golfer. The superintendent let me be the manager. He gave me a letter for all four years. That was nice.
Then there was no women’s golf in college – it was before Title IX. I think Title IX got started in ’72 but it didn’t really get implemented until ’77. So, before Title IX, in college, the only scholarships were for men – for football and basketball. Nothing for women. Very few colleges had scholarships for women. After Title IX – if you had 100 scholarships for men, you had to have 100 scholarships for women. Title IX changed everything for women and women’s golf.
I’m in a man’s world. But it’s become more and more acceptable for women to be in it. [My mentality was], I’ve got to do the best I can. I’ve got to be better than the guys. I have to really work hard at being above. And that has paid off dividends. Bosses notice that stuff. It’s helped me get ahead.
Her Agenda: In college you said you were studying mathematics and finance which are both male-dominated fields. Then you went on to the ROTC and the Air Force. Now, you’re part of a group of women paving a new path for women in sports management. Were you ever intimidated in these male-dominated systems?
Jennifer Alexander: Once in awhile I got left out when they formed study groups. But then, everything in math was pretty easy for me, except for differentials. There were usually about two women in a class for those kinds of classes. It was different back then. We didn’t look at it as being discriminated against. That was just the way it was in life.
Her Agenda: What inspired you to join the Air Force?
Jennifer Alexander: They had some recruiters and they came to some of my classes. They said, ‘We will give you 100 dollars a month if you join Air Force ROTC.’
This recruiter talked to us about how if you joined the Air Force you’d be a Second Lieutenant and you’d have a job. And I said really? Because back when I was going to school, there weren’t that many jobs for women. Out of a hundred people in medical school, there were maybe two women.
I just knew I was going to have a job. And that it would be a good job. And that there was retirement with it, too. Also, coming from a little town I didn’t really know that much about the world. So I signed up. I got talked into it, you know. I’m glad I did. It’s probably one of the better things I did.
Her Agenda: How did golf play a role in your life as you were busy with your career?
Jennifer Alexander: The guys that ran the Air Force base found out I was a really good golfer. I was better than everybody out there. The next thing I know, every place I went to, I would get a call from the Wing Commander saying, ‘General so-and-so is going to be here next week. Do you think you could come play with us?’
I wasn’t brown nosing or buttering-up to people. I just went out and played golf. But it helped my career. And I never let them beat me. I would give them some tips, some techniques. They were very appreciative.
Golf is the best sport for networking. I don’t care what profession you’re in. In almost any company, it’s great for networking. They always have those golf competitions for every company – go play in those. You’ll see the management will look up to you. They will spot you.
Her Agenda: Let’s fast forward post Air Force and after your corporate job. You jumped into your third career as a golf pro. What made you jump into golf professionally?
Jennifer Alexander: My daughter went to college. I was working at a high level, high stress job. So I started going out golfing again just to take the stress off and my game came back real quick. My husband said, ‘Man! My goal is to hit it further than you.’ And I told him, ‘That will never happen.’
And then, in the Air Force, since I’m retired they’ve got this thing called the Veteran’s Educational Benefits. You need to use them within ten years. I hadn’t even thought about it. But my husband and I were on this trip to Hawaii, and I opened this Golf Digest magazine, and there was an ad for the Golf Academy of America. And it said you could use your VA benefits to go to the school. I thought, ‘this might be fun. They always say find a job that you really like.’
I went down to San Diego and visited them, and went, this is for me.
That’s how I did it. I went down there and I loved every day. There’s not one day I did not like. I couldn’t wait for class. I couldn’t wait to get out to the golf course. I couldn’t wait for my lessons. I can’t explain it.
Her Agenda: What kinds of things did you learn as a golf pro at the Golf Academy of America? How did it help you with sports administration?
Jennifer Alexander: I can’t thank the Golf Academy of America enough for everything it taught me. It was invaluable. Everything I learned at the Golf Academy of America, helped me almost immediately in the golf profession.
We had a class on merchandising and how to sell clothes, and how to do drop shipments, and how to sell. If you order 30 shirts, and they cost 20 dollars you sell them for 60. Once you sell ten, you mark the last half 50% off because you’ve earned back the money. You’ve paid the money it costs so everything else is just profit.
We had classes on golf? handicaps which is very complicated. But I can do it blindfolded.
Then I learned about food and beverage. Who would’ve thought you need to learn about that? But I tell you, every golf course has a restaurant and that’s part of making money for the golf course.
Then I learned how to build clubs. How to tear them apart and put them together. Then I had to fit people for clubs. That’s a big science.
They had one class on personal finance. Which I think everyone should have. I don’t care how much you know about money. That was really good for everybody who went there.
The finance degree fit right in, too. At my last course, the general manager let me help him with the annual budget. I knew how to do everyone’s salaries – I came from HR so I knew how to do that. I helped him with the advertising and marketing.
Her Agenda: Switching gears a little now, what made you want to start a girl’s golf program?
Jennifer Alexander: Good question. When I was coaching for the LPGA one of the members came up to me, and she goes,
‘Jennifer, have you ever considered starting an LPGA Junior Golf program?’
I said, ‘Well, no. I don’t know how to do it.’
There were a couple other members that were doing it in the Bay Area. So, I said, ‘Well, I’ll look into it.’
And I went and talked to them. That’s what put it into my head.
When I started a girl’s golf program – I had no idea how to do it. So when I went to talk to [others who were doing it], they told me to start small. I had about six girls the first year. The next year I had 15. Then I had 30. Then I had 72 girls.
When I moved to Las Vegas, that was part of my criteria – I was looking for a place to start a girl’s golf program. When I moved here there were none. Now there are three. I talked two other pros into starting them. So I’m very proud of that. I’ve got the largest junior golf program in Nevada, and I built that up from nothing.
Her Agenda: Clearly, the sport has grown for women’s participation during your lifetime and your time as a coach. What’s changed?
Jennifer Alexander: As I’ve grown up in life, I’ve seen things change. I’ve seen it gone from where you could only get jobs as a secretary to going to law school or medical school if you could get in, to actually getting a job [as a woman]. So, the world is better now-a-days.
I tell the girls I teach, you’re just as good as the boys. I want them to know they can do anything they put their mind to. I think it’s important.
Her Agenda: What’s the reality for women working on the business side of golf?
Jennifer Alexander: It’s still a guy profession. But women are really appreciated and they are looked up to now-a-days. There’s a lot of women who run golf courses who are general managers and head pros. There are a lot of them. You really make money being a head pro and being a general manager. It’s not as male-dominated a profession as it used to be. It’s open for women. I would encourage women – no matter what age they are [to look into it]. We are making strides. Women are making strides.
Her Agenda: Why do you feel like it’s important for there to be more women in leadership positions within sports?
Jennifer Alexander: You know the glass ceiling? It still exists. But in the next 20 years, I think there are going to be just as many women CEOs as there are men. And that’s because we are just as good. We’re getting rid of the good ‘ol boy network. Even in the golf profession.
[Editor’s note: This interview published on June 26th, 2017. It has been edited for length and clarity. This Power Agenda is sponsored by Golf Academy of America.]