If you’re around Azucena Maldonado and you can’t feel her enthusiasm and passion for golf and introducing the game to new people … well, you might be fast asleep if you’re missing it.
Her hands move, her head bobs, her eyes light up and her smile shines. Her energy comes in bursts of unmistakable excitement when discussing how she’s bringing golf to Latinas across Southern California. Even through a computer screen, Maldonado’s spirit is felt.
As founder of the Latina Golfers Association (LGA), her dedication to this pursuit has made her organization a local model of success, and likely a national one soon. It’s also what led the PGA of America to become a strategic partner with the LGA, and the Southern California PGA Section to back Maldonado’s work for more than a decade.
“It’s been a 13-year journey. A labor of love, that’s for sure,” said Maldonado, who shared her story for National Hispanic Heritage Month, showcasing how to introduce the game to an untraditional golf demographic.
Expanding with the PGA’s Help
Through some innovative efforts, the LGA now counts thousands of Latinas of all ages as alumni and members. Maldonado is in discussions to expand nationally, and with help from the PGA of America and PGA Sections across the country.
The LGA’s relationship with the Southern California PGA Section has been critical to its success. The PGA Members that help the LGA are the best of the best in the area. And when women want individual lessons, they seek out those same PGA Professionals.
“We’re lucky to have quite a few people who are passionate about growing the game and bringing new people to it,” said Nikki Gatch, the Southern California Section’s Chief Operating Officer and Assistant Executive Director. “Being involved has given us an opportunity to educate women on what the PGA is, what we do and how we can help them.”
Maldonado also started a Latina Leadership Cohort, which puts leaders from different sectors through a golf bootcamp, with help from the Southern California Section. The women learn fundamentals and etiquette from PGA Members while connecting with other Latina leaders.
And as Maldonado’s influence grows, so do the opportunities. She was recently elected to the Southern California Golf Association’s Board of Directors, and is also on the California Alliance for Golf’s Executive Board and the national Advisory Board for the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America.
“A testament to who she is and what she’s done and the impact she’s had,” Gatch said.
Falling for the Game
Maldonado, born in Mexico and raised in Houston, moved to Los Angeles about 15 years ago. About a month in, she was asked on a date to a golf course, where she got her first putter and spent some time on the practice green.
Soon she was spending a few days a week at the course or driving range, and eventually graduated to playing 18 holes.
“I fell in love with it right away,” Maldonado said. “It was a total immersion after that. I was playing, learning etiquette. I was watching Golf Channel, watching the PGA TOUR, the LPGA Tour. I was hooked.”
After a couple years playing only with the few golfers she knew – all men – Maldonado was invited to play in a charity tournament. It opened her eyes to new people and the greater golf world. Still a relative newbie to Southern California, she no longer had to keep her love for the game confined to her small group and made new friends.
But what struck Maldonado most was what she didn’t see – women, particularly Latinas.
Admittedly naïve, she asked why so few women played, and why none were in her growing golf group. Those men, happy to welcome in more women, told Maldonado to invite her friends to join.
“That’s when it dawned on me,” she said. “I didn’t know any women that played golf.”
Making Change Happen
Always a motivated doer – never a complainer – Maldonado went about changing that. In 2008, she emailed her network of Latinas, which included women in the business, political and community sectors. It was an invitation to a networking event at a golf course, encouraging them to get involved in the game.
That first event brought in 94 women and “three smart men.” As Maldonado made her pitch, she heard common themes from the women: They didn’t know how to get started, they felt intimidated at courses and felt golf was a stuffy game that didn’t welcome people like them.
It made Maldonado realize that if she wanted more Latinas to find golf, she had to make it more welcoming. So, under the LGA name, she put on golf clinics, outings, tournaments and even fashion shows. All the events took place at golf courses in Southern California, so the women could feel more comfortable and familiar at the facilities.
Despite the success of the initial event, it took time to build up Maldonado’s vision and headcounts. The women reiterated their concerns, but Maldonado kept selling the benefits: golf was a networking opportunity with business and community leaders, and the course was where connections and deals could be made – plus it was fun!
Creating a Financial Pipeline
The LGA has also become a money-maker for golf courses that welcome the group’s events and outings. At the outset, it was difficult for Maldonado to secure locations to host her events, but as her name and reputation have spread, it’s become easier.
Still, though, she remembers those who helped from the start.
“We remember who welcomed us and helped us when we started this,” Maldonado said. “And as we’ve grown, we’ve remained loyal to those courses, and we promote them to our people. Those are the places we play regularly. We want to give those places our business, and there’s a lot to give.”
And soon, they may be giving that business all over the country.