When Danielle Wissel moved to Virginia from Idaho a few years ago, she planned to go out for the girls' golf team at Forest Park, only to learn that, unlike about 40 other states in the country, Virginia high schools do not offer girls' golf.
The absence of girls' programs also came as disappointing news to Babette Overman, who coached high school girls' golf in both Indiana and Florida and hoped to do the same when she moved to Prince William County.
In Virginia, female golfers must vie for spots on the boys' high school teams, which some say discourages girls from trying out for the team at all, raising questions about gender equity.
"I was surprised," Wissel said of the sport's status in Virginia. "I thought maybe golf wasn't as big down here, but it's actually pretty great. There are some nice courses down here."
First-year Bruins golf coach Overman is hoping to change the sport's coed status. With a series of practices and clinics planned for female players from various area high schools, she is trying to generate enough interest to perhaps next year have a separate girls' invitational and, eventually, full-fledged girls' teams that play their own schedules.
She plans to meet with local and Virginia High School League athletic officials to discuss the future of the sport in the state and to convince them that this is a fairness issue.
"I'm not used to being in a state where we have crew or schools that have lacrosse. But we've given girls an opportunity to learn about" those sports. Overman, 53, said. "But we're not even willing to let a girl develop her talents in golf. . . . This is a lifelong sport, and we're just not giving girls an opportunity to enjoy this great sport. I know they say you can put them up with the boys, but how come we have separate basketball teams and lacrosse and soccer. What's the difference?"
Interest would appear to be up in the area, at least at some schools. Osbourn Park Coach Mike Foley said he has seven girls out for golf this season, six new to the program.
To date, however, there has not been reason to form separate girls' golf teams in Virginia because participation among girls is so low. Overman and Foley believe the numbers would increase if girls had their own teams and did not have to compete against boys for positions.
Based on participation survey statistics compiled by the National Federation of State High School Associations, there were 147 female high school golfers in Virginia in 2002-03, representing 87 schools. That's hardly a ripple considering that there are 62,159 girls participating on high school teams across the country, a total that has grown by about 10,000 the past five years. Golf now ranks as the 10th most popular high school sport nationally for girls.
According to information gathered from state high school association Web sites, about 40 states offer girls' golf as its own sport. Virginia offers a state individual championship for females, but that is the only exclusive girls' event on the high school calendar. In other competitions, the girls compete with and against boys.
For schools to schedule a girls' match for the regular season, they would have to use one of the 12 matches the boys are allotted, Overman said, and right now there are not enough girls participating to justify trimming the boys' schedule.
There are about 37 golfers in the Forest Park program, five of them girls.
"I'm finding girls, there's no doubt about that," said Overman, who coached Sebring (Fla.) to a 127-8 record in five seasons, with four straight state championship tournament appearances and a state title in 2001. "But I'm finding out because the girls feel they have to compete with boys for varsity spots that, 'I'll never be as good as the boys, so why should I even try?' What we're doing is going to join all these girls together."
Wissel, for one, believes it could be only a matter of time before girls have their own teams. The senior and teammate Denise Shreffler were the only girls on the Forest Park squad last year.
"I don't think [attracting more girls to high school golf] would be that hard to do," said Wissel, who works in the pro shop at Bristow Manor Golf Club. "No one really reached out to the girls. Some girls do like to play golf, and no one's really made an effort to go find them. . . . You can come out even if you don't have a lot of experience."
Overman, who moved to the area last summer, remembers her reaction when she learned there was no girls' golf in Virginia. She turned to her husband, Kirby, the Forest Park boys' basketball coach, and said, "You gotta be kidding. Why?' "
There have been individual female standouts in the state, however. Chantilly's Jenny Suh not only won the inaugural VHSL girls' open golf championship in 2002 by 12 strokes, the three-time All-Met also won the overall state title that season, the only female to do so in the 40-year history of the event. She bested a field of 71 boys.
Overman has been rallying other coaches to find female players. Her Forest Park girls' golfers are scheduled to practice with the Battlefield girls' golfers tomorrow to give each set of players a chance to compete with peers. But, for now, such encounters and occasional clinics will be the only girls' events. The invitational Overman had hoped for is not likely to materialize until next season, at the earliest.
"Someone's got to take the step, and I'm willing to take the step," she said. "We're taking baby steps to let them know that definitely you girls have the opportunity to get out there."
Foley, in his 23rd season at Osbourn Park, is optimistic about the future of girls' golf in the area. This season, about a third of his team is female, including sophomore Mary Hashagen, a cheerleader last year who has shown potential to be among the Yellow Jackets' top six golfers.
"I've told girls for years, please come out, please come out," Foley said. "Many of the girls just aren't good enough or haven't played enough to challenge the boys, so they were a little reticent about coming out. But now that so many are coming out, I think we'll see more girls come out because they're more comfortable playing each other and more competitive playing each other.
"Some are better than some of the guys trying out but have a little bit of fear of going up against boys, which in some cases is unfounded."
Wissel enjoys playing against boys because she believes it strengthens her game. But she also acknowledges it's nice to have more female teammates.
"You feel a little more in the [swing] of things," Wissel said Tuesday morning, donning a Titleist visor, coming off the Montclair Country Club course after playing nine holes with teammates Ashleigh Braxton and Shreffler. "It feels like we're a little more active in practice. I'm happy there are more girls. You relate more."
Overman said the absence of girls' golf hurts female players trying to get into college, because they are not competing against other females.
"She's at a real disadvantage," Overman said, using Wissel as a example. "I have nothing to compare her to other than being on a boys' team. I know what I'd say [as a college coach], 'Well, give me more.' I'm at a standstill. I can't go forward with anything. I just truly have to be honest -- in this particular sport, they play against boys."
To drum up interest in golf at Forest Park -- not just for the girls, but for the program in general -- Overman has scheduled a variety of events. One was the "Longest Day of Golf," in which 31 players showed up at Montclair at 6 a.m., with the intention of playing until dark, because they had received pledges to earn money for each hole they completed. When the rain forced the Bruins off the course at 4 p.m., the contingent had squeezed in 54 holes, raising more than $3,000 for the golf program. A team-faculty golf outing is planned for Monday.
Overman is "everywhere," Braxton said. "One minute she's at one hole, and then she's at the hole with us, and then she's going to another one. . . . [The coaches are] everywhere watching us play."
The starting point guard for the Bruins' Virginia AAA championship basketball team, Braxton figures she is a prime example of a former or casual golfer who just needed a reason to give the sport another try.
A stronger emphasis on female participation is what did it.
"There's possibly a lot more people just like me who played but didn't know more about the . . . team," she said. "It's a great game. You can come out with a couple of people you know and have a great time."