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It’s Tee Time for Women Lobbyists

At 4:15 on a sizzling August afternoon, a few dozen pupils were huddled around their instructor, squinting from the sun and shielding their faces from the pounding heat.

Even though the playing hadn’t yet begun, the participants’ faces already gleamed with sweat. Several of them sipped thirstily from bottles of bright blue Powerade.

The students, all women, were mostly lobbyists and lawyers who had ventured two miles outside the Beltway to the Tournament Players Club at Avenel in Potomac, Md., to learn the basics of golf. The invitation for the event — dubbed “Get Into the Swing” and sponsored by Hunton and Williams’ Women’s Networking Forum — lured novices by pronouncing that women who don’t play golf may be missing out on key business opportunities.

“Ladies, this is lesson No. 1: Don’t show up to golf clinic with plastic on the grip,” said Fran Rhoads, Avenel’s director of instruction, as he pulled out a brand new shrink-wrapped club from the bag of one woman there.

Some of the women who attended are avid golfers who wanted to polish their skills. Others had never even set foot on a course.

But no matter their ability, all said they feel that golf is more than a sport or a pastime to members of the lobbying profession. In their line of work, it’s a business tool that allows them a unique opportunity to get cozy with Members of Congress, their aides, potential clients and their fellow lobbyists. Many of the women said their main goal was to pick up some lingo, skills and confidence so that they, like many of their male peers, can reap the benefits of golfing in Congressional circles.

Other longtime female lobbyists who golf agree that there’s no better entree.

Lobbyist Shannon Russell, a former Capitol Hill aide who did not attend the Avenel clinic, said she’s been golfing for 20 years and was one of the first members of the Women’s Congressional Golf Association, a 15-year-old bipartisan group of almost 200 female staffers and lobbyists who enjoy the game.

Russell, who served as a PAC director for 17 years, said that “you raise a lot of money in golf tournaments. I know a lot of Members of Congress because I play golf with them.”

Russell, who is self-taught, said that Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) has given her some of the most helpful golf pointers.

“He said, ‘Get your driver out of the bag and put your fat ass into it,’” she recalled, adding that she responded with, “I don’t have a fat ass.”

Anne Saunders Fabry, a lobbyist with Brown Rudnick Berlack Israels, serves as president of the WCGA.

“This was created to encourage other women to get out and golf more often, and to see golf as a professional opportunity for themselves,” Fabry said. “It’s a professional tool — a very powerful professional tool around town.”

She’s not kidding.

The early August inbox of one male GOP lobbyist reads like a Saturday afternoon network TV lineup. There’s the invitation to the 12th Annual Burns Classic on Sept. 10 in Montana to benefit Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.). And one for the 4th Annual Pence Open Golf Outing in Indiana for Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.). Another offers lobbyists and other donors a chance to play a round at Trump National Golf Club in New Jersey to benefit Mike Ferguson (R-N.J.), followed by a day at the 87th PGA Championship in Springfield, N.J. All the events come with price tags of $1,000 or more per individual.

Between charity events, fundraisers for Members or PACs, the networking opportunities golf provides are tremendous. Given that 18 holes of golf can take more than four hours to play, snagging a spot in a well-connected foursome can offer some quality face time.

“Spending several hours on the golf course with somebody gives you a much better sense of them,” Fabry said. “It establishes a friendship, rather than spending 10 minutes sipping cocktails in a room with 500 other lobbyists to try to get somebody’s attention.”

During June and July, the WCGA hosts Sunrise Golf at Hains Point Golf Course for women who think it’s fun, or at least professionally advantageous, to be on the fairways by 6 a.m. For women who prefer to sleep, the group puts on a Buckets and Buds happy hour on the driving range. WCGA, along with a networking group for lobbyists called Women in Government Relations, hosts an annual tournament that benefits First Tee of D.C., a charity that provides golf and life lessons for kids from low-income homes.

LeeAnn Petersen, manager of government relations for Volvo Group North America, started golfing about a decade ago and advises all women to take up the sport.

“Golf is essential to business, particularly if you’re a woman,” she said. “Men get those types of opportunities all the time anyway. As a woman, if you want a seat at the table, when else can you have four hours on the golf course with staffers or Members?”

Although her employer isn’t a player in defense contracting, Petersen said she participated in a recent National Guard Foundation tournament and played with two defense contractors and a procurement official.

“I learned the ropes of how you could break into the defense business if Volvo wanted to get involved. This guy was able to tell me: ‘I know of this contract that’s coming up. You should speak to this arm of the military, and this contact.’ I went back to my boss with that information,” Petersen said. “I wasn’t even there to conduct business.”

Mary Rosado, vice president for federal government affairs at the pharmacy benefit company Express Scripts Inc., started playing golf as a child. She has an enviable 12 handicap.

“To be able to play at a fundraiser or at a charity event, and not have to send the men in the office, I think it opens up doors for women,” she said. “A lot more women play. I think that’s fabulous.”

Still, some women golfers in the lobbying world privately complain that men, even when they’re inferior players, get more invites. And some clubs, about 25 in the nation, don’t permit women on their courses. One of those is Burning Tree Club in Bethesda, Md.

Martha Burk, chairwoman of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, took a leading role in the fight two years ago to open the Augusta National Golf Club, location of the Masters, to women members. Unlike Burning Tree, the Augusta club allows women to play. Rep. Mary Bono (R-Calif.), for instance, has played the course with a member.

Burk said that in the 19th century, men and women played golf together. But in the 20th century, she said, the culture of golf took a sexist turn.

Women lobbyists will inevitably have “less access to the Member if the Member is a golfer and wants to play” at Burning Tree, Burk said. But, she added, “even if it’s a place where women are allowed to play, it’s still pretty much male turf, and I don’t think that a woman by and large is going to be viewed as an equal in a golf foursome, even if she’s there.”

Rosado said that growing up in St. Louis, she remembers that women weren’t allowed on the courses before noon, and that when she competed as a teenager, the girls played nine holes instead of 18.

“That’s very definitely the culture I was in,” she said. “But that has totally changed. I’m sure there are vestiges out there, but it’s gotten a lot better.”

Women in lobbying who are experienced golfers say many of their female peers shy away from the course simply because they figure that all the males play like pros.

“One golf pro told me that fewer than 10 percent of the golfing public ever breaks 100,” Petersen said. “And if more women knew that, then I think they would get out and play.”

Men and women golfers say that having a female in a tournament foursome can be an advantage because women can start from the “red tee,” which is closer to the hole.

But while many women take advantage of that rule, Russell said she plays from the “guys’ tee.”

“And quite frankly, I have no qualms beating the guys,” she added. “I’m probably not a good lobbyist because I’m going to damn well try to beat them, especially if there’s money on the line.”

Nena Shaw, a lawyer and lobbyist at Hunton and Williams, said she had “next to no interest in golf” prior to the Avenel clinic.

“I felt like this gave me a very good, solid foundation — what I would need to do if I were to find myself on a golf course,” said Shaw, who grew up on a golf course but never played. “The lobbyists I work with, they play golf a lot. I do know there are partners who take golfing vacations with their clients; extravagant ones, to Ireland.”

At the clinic, Shaw and some of the women chatted about what measures were included in the recently passed energy bill and what hurdles they might face at the regulatory level.

Mary Kenkel, general manager of federal affairs and national media at Cinergy Corp., was the one who brought the newly purchased clubs to the Avenel event. She said the clinic, which focused on putting, pitching and driving, offered a good introduction to the game.

“It was a nice way to see also that there are a lot of people at the same skill level,” Kenkel said. Now that the plastic’s off, she plans to break in those clubs again soon.