Paige Spiranac has plenty to say. It was not obvious at last week’s Dubai Desert Classic when promoters broke with convention by hiring the 24-year-old as the tournament starter and player introductions were as far as Spiranac needed to go. No one, it must be noted, seemed altogether bothered that she was the first woman to take the microphone in place of the usual stoic European Tour man.
Do not dare suggest to Spiranac, a professional golfer and social media phenomenon, that her appearance was tokenistic. It is not as if the former college golf star, ranked lower than 1,000th in the world but with 1.2m followers on Instagram, has not heard the criticism before, but this time she is addressing it head on.
“When it comes to the golf industry, I know that people see me as a gimmick,” Spiranac says. “I don’t think I am. If I was a guy and I had the same social following, I don’t think people would call it a gimmick. They’d say it was great.”
Dubai has been at the heart of Spiranac’s story. As a player of lowly status in her native US, invitations to play in Dubai’s Ladies European Tour events in 2015 and 2016 triggered global headlines. She was heralded as a “micro-celebrity”. A Golfin Dubai executive added: “The game must open up to ‘savvy, social-media types’ to attract new talent to the sport.” Laura Davies, the decorated women’s player, was one of many on the tour who were unimpressed. “If she’s here for any other reason than she’s a great golfer, then it’s a little bit pointless,” Davies said.
Spiranac missed the cut on both occasions. The epic attention – was she was a model or a golfer, she was asked? – had a deep impact. As we sit in a quiet corner of the very venue where this circus ensued, Spiranac does not sugarcoat her memories.
“I had a really rough go of it both times I was here,” she says. “There was a lot of media, it was really stressful and I found the experience really hard. I said I wasn’t coming back to play.
“People seem to think I got where I am because of the clothes that I wear. That’s unfair to me and unfair to all of my accomplishments. I probably do more community service than any other professional golfer. For people to say: ‘You only show some cleavage, that’s why you have what you have,’ is unfair. That’s the injustice that we face every day as women and I see it a lot in golf.”
Her experience playing in Dubai proved a sign of more ominous things to come as public profile and personal life overlapped and she was targeted on the very social media platforms that had given her celebrity. “I was harassed, my family was harassed,” Spiranac adds. “I was receiving death threats, people were invading my privacy, I was being blackmailed. This was going on whilst I was trying to play.”
It still begs the question, why the furore over an Instagram feed? “Because I look different to a golfer, maybe? I dress differently, I don’t conform to what golf is supposed to be. I love golf, I think it is a great game but I think there are a lot of things that need to change. I think it needs to become more progressive, more inclusive. For me to speak out about that, it does bring on more hate but it also starts a conversation and I can create change. I am just trying to get people to feel more comfortable because I know I’m not alone feeling that way. That’s why people are not getting into golf.”
Spiranac remains a professional golfer in name but has taken an indefinite break to pursue a media career and continue work as an ambassador for an anti-bullying charity while trying to reshape attitudes within the sport. She condemned as a backwards move the LPGA tour’s decision to introduce a stricter dress code.
“The people who are saying golf is progressive, if you look at them they all look the same,” Spiranac says. “They are all middle-aged men. They obviously feel accepted. When you go to a golf course and look around, you see a bunch of guys, everyone looks like you so you are going to feel great. If you are walking in as a woman, you don’t feel the same.
“It’s such a male-dominated sport, it has been around for so long and there are traditions. People like their traditions without change. When someone comes in wearing leggings instead of trousers, it is like the world is ending.
“I have always had a different fashion style. I always felt like I never belonged and it is tough because I am a good player, I know what to do but I still don’t like going to new clubs because I am worried someone will say my skirt is too short or I don’t have a collar. Why does that even matter?”
Still, the feeling among fellow and former pros seemed to be that she was given opportunities inconsistent with her talent. When she appeared on the cover of Golf Digest as part of a special looking at the sport’s innovators, Juli Inkster, one of her favourite players, questioned the decision while the former pro Anya Alvarez said: “We need to question what type of innovators we want our future generation of female golfers to aspire to.”
Spiranac is aware of dismissive attitudes towards her in the upper echelons of women’s golf. “Life is great for them on tour and that’s awesome but we need to think about everyday golfers.” Spiranac’s passion to grow the game and stamp out discrimination and bullying is impressive. Whether she can prompt the revision she believes fundamental remains to be seen.