In the 12 years since she founded the Latina Golfers Association in Los Angeles, Azucena Maldonado has attracted more than 2,000 women to the game, helping open doors and having fun, too
The future of golf feels scary.
My fellow baby boomers have propped up the rounds-played numbers for years. We might be the last wave of golf addicts who have the desire and wherewithal to keep playing through retirement.
However, the boomers are getting creakier by the year, and at the age where we’re one serious illness or broken hip away from never playing again. That’s scary because golf can’t replace us. When we fade out, the bottom drops out of golf participation.
I believe golf as we know it can be saved. Despite assorted feel-good national marketing programs that birthed few new golfers, the game’s governing bodies have mostly failed to patch the sinking numbers of participation. Nobody prints the truth about golf’s decline because it’s bad for selling ads and hurts the image crafted by the game’s cheerleading organizations.
Golf’s rescue has to start at the grass-roots level. It is as simple as someone such as you getting a friend or family member into golf.
Or someone such as Azucena Maldonado. She already is making a difference in greater Los Angeles. More than 2,000 women have taken part in her Latina Golfers Association program since she founded it in 2008.
The LGA doesn’t introduce the game to women just so they can learn to hit balls with sticks. The LGA program is about empowering women with business skills, networking opportunities and the confidence to compete on corporate playing fields that often are male-dominated.
Learning to play golf can do all that? Cynthia Torres, an LGA member, would say yes.
In 2009, she was a budding sales executive for UPS in Los Angeles and heading to her first big client meeting, accompanied by her sales director, a man.
The client’s office was filled with a smorgasbord of golf items and souvenirs, and the proud male client couldn’t wait to show them off. If you’re a golfer, you know the type. Torres, the daughter of parents who emigrated from Mexico, knew nothing of the game.
“They spent the first 20 minutes talking about golf,” said Torres, recalling the event. “I’m a talker. I usually can find a way into a conversation. That day, I had nothing. I couldn’t participate. I was blank. Golf was a different language that I didn’t understand.”
After the meeting, the sales director chided Torres for being a silent observer early during the men’s conversation when she was supposed to be sharing her buoyant personality, building a client relationship and, ultimately, selling.
“That will always stay with me,” she said. “It was negative feedback … but how was that my fault?”
She realized that she needed to learn more about golf. However, none of her friends or co-workers played the game, so she didn’t know how or where to start.
Four years later, she met a stranger at a Christmas toy drive in the Los Angeles area who tried to get their forced conversation going by asking, “Do you have a New Year’s resolution for 2014?”
“Yes,” Torres said. “I want to learn how to play golf.”
The stranger was Maldonado, who was floored by the response and wondered whether she was being pranked and that Torres knew she was the LGA founder. No, Torres didn’t know; she just got incredibly lucky to ask the right person, if not the only person, who knew how to help a Latina woman break into golf.
Maldonado already was five years into the LGA then and well on the way to becoming the star whose work would earn her induction into the Latino Sports Hall of Fame in 2013; the 2015-16 National Latina Business Women’s Association Trailblazer Award; the 2019 Latina Style Magazine Leadership Award; and Woman of the Year from the National Hispanic Business Women’s Association, among other honors.
The advisory boards on which she serves include the Southern California PGA Section, California Alliance for Golf and Los Angeles County Golf Commission.
Torres followed through and now is an avid golfer, and still with UPS.
“Golf has impacted every part of my life – my friends, my family and work,” she said. “And I just played golf with a prospective client I’ve been after for two years. During a long walk from the third green to the fourth hole, he finally told me he wanted to see my proposal and how we could make it work.”
Unfortunately, state COVID-19 restrictions on group golf outings put the LGA schedule on a temporary hold, but LGA members are staying connected via Zoom gatherings that have included assorted national Latina business leaders and LPGA Tour player Lizette Salas.
“It’s regrettable because we had a fabulous start to the year, the best we’ve ever had,” Maldonado said. “We had 175 ladies come to a brunch in January that was followed by a golf outing, and we had to limit it because that was capacity.”
Besides targeting Southern California, Maldonado has done LGA events in Dallas, Austin, Corpus Christi, San Diego, Houston, Atlanta, Miami and Orlando. The participants in those events share a common denominator. “They’re all professional women,” Maldonado said.
The LGA is a proven program that ought to spread to other cities. Maldonado said the interest is there, but resources are lacking. She’s still looking for a national sponsor (probably not a golf company) to underwrite her vision.
Maldonado is a first-generation immigrant born in Monterrey, Mexico, and raised in Texas before relocating to Los Angeles. A boyfriend who was a single-digit handicapper introduced her to the game and made it his job to teach her, eventually including her in games with his regular golfing buddies.
“I learned on the job and was totally immersed in the world of golf,” Maldonado said. “I feel blessed. Most people don’t have that opportunity, or don’t know a golfer to bring them into the game.”
When she graduated to playing in a charity tournament that had only a handful of women in a field of 100-plus men, she wondered, Why aren’t more women playing?
She went to work on finding the answer and soon began making connections in business and in chamber-of-commerce events, often with sponsors or executives of big corporations. She mingled with key people whom she otherwise wouldn’t have met.
“Golf,” she realized, “was a fast track in business.”
When the LGA debuted in 2008, the first outing was at Alhambra (Calif.) Golf Course, a public track, that drew “94 women and three smart men who wanted to be there,” she said with a laugh.
Most of those attendees knew nothing about golf or owned clubs. So, the program began with the basics through clinics and lessons, and evolved to include outings, brunches, fashion shows and networking events. “It was an outside-the-box way to attract women who had never been in golf,” Maldonado said.
Golf has become Maldonado’s life work and passion. She made one of her two holes-in-one while escorting some LGA beginners around Arroyo Seco Golf Course in South Pasadena, where she holed a 6-iron shot from 124 yards.
“I saw it roll onto the green, and we started walking; I guess I wasn’t paying attention,” she said. “We got to the green and one of the other ladies looked in the hole. Sure enough, my ball was there. Of course, I yelled and jumped up and down and was excited and hugged everybody. But they were all such golf newbies, I’m not sure they appreciated how special that was. They probably figured, Yeah, this is what happens when you play golf.”
The LGA ran a free six-week golf program, Golf In The Park, during the past six summers at Los Angeles County’s inner-city parks. (Coronavirus might prevent a seventh.) The LGA also started a mentorship with the Roosevelt High School girls’ golf team that includes fundraising, providing golf equipment and clothes and taking them on golf outings.
Maybe one of those girls will become the next Cynthia Torres, who plays regularly with The Divas, a group of female friends who go on golf trips, too.
Torres hasn’t made an ace yet but said her greatest golf moment came during a UPS planning session for a destination meeting that offered a golf outing for participants who flew in early. Department members were asked, “Who’s in for golf?”
Torres raised her hand. “It was such a proud moment for me,” she said.
Golf has been good to her, with a lot of help from her LGA friends.
“At this point,” she said, “golf is going to be in my life forever.”
Maybe golf’s future looks brighter, after all.