Hailey Davidson hit the headlines in May for becoming the first trans woman to win a professional golf tournament in the United States, but she was no overnight success story. She won a mini-tour event in Polk County, Florida that was the culmination of a six-year journey to return to golf.
Even long before she ever picked up a golf club, the odds seemed stacked against Davidson becoming a pro athlete. She was born with her feet backwards, and needed multiple surgeries to correct the issue – essentially making it impossible for her to play any sport that involved running.
Really, her first impressions of golf were not particularly positive either. Her dad took her along in winter, which was hardly the most appealing circumstance, but the next summer she could not be kept away from the local course.
Her confidence in the game grew, but being from Ayrshire in Scotland originally, she did not know how to navigate through the politics of school sports in America.
“I was probably 14 or 15 when I started winning really low level tournaments, and working my way up, and I guess when I started winning things my interest was piqued a little bit more,” Davidson said.
“It was piquing my interest as something I would want to do one day, but as a kid when you start getting good everyone starts to think those things. I didn’t really know if it was something that could be a reality, or if I was just a kid who thought I was good.
“I wasn’t travelling everywhere like other kids were in the US. My parents didn’t really know about that. Kids were travelling to California, they were going all over the states, we just weren’t used to that. We thought that driving two or three hours to a tournament was really far while other kids were flying all over the states.
“I was probably 16 or 17 before my parents knew I was good enough to make the investment in travelling to those things, but before then I was in a different world, and that was just junior golf.
“Again, we didn’t know how college sports worked over here. When my dad was a kid, college golf wasn’t a thing unless you travelled to the US, so with me we didn’t think much of it until I started playing with other kids who were talking about dealing with this agency that’s helping them reach out to colleges.
“By the time I started reaching out a year-and-a-half before I graduated, I had slim pickings. We didn’t realise that you were supposed to start this when you were just getting into high school, we had no idea that it was a whole thing over here.
“It’s definitely a different world, and I did things differently because of that. It was a different process getting here but I took my own way.”
As a teenager playing golf, Davidson never felt particularly settled within herself, although at the time she could not put her finger on why.
Instead, that uneasiness manifested itself as frustration on the golf course. As the self-professed angry golf kid, Davidson may have seemed like a perfectionist because of how she reacted to often winning scores, but on reflection she can see it was because she was trans.
“I swear, I must have been 13 years old, but I was always known as the kid growing up who would break clubs,” she recalled.
“Back in my club, when you won a member’s tournament, you got store credit. At one point, I was winning all of them, so – and I regret all of this now – I stupidly thought it didn’t matter if I break this club, because I have enough store credit I can go and buy myself another one.
“I remember once I was on the fifth hole, and I slammed my driver off the metal tee marker there, and it snapped. I’m calling my dad screaming. He always brings up the made up story I told him instead of telling him I broke it, I said something like ‘the head just flew off’, and I get reminded of that every two weeks – this was 15 or 16 years ago, but he still goes on about it!
“That was one of the better moments too, because that was just me playing for fun, so other people didn’t have to see it. In tournaments, I wouldn’t let my parents come and watch me, just because I was so angry towards them.
“I was such an angry person for every reason in the planet apparently. Even as I got older, I had such a need for perfection.
“Even as far as the couple of years I played professionally as a male before I transitioned, I played with a guy who won the British Amateur back in 2011, Bryden Macpherson. I remember we were on the 16th or 17th hole, and I hit a shot to about 10 feet away from like 120 yards, and I was getting all angry, and he just looked at me and asked why.
“That was a big learning curve for me, because back then I had no real accolades or anything. I was playing with someone who had played in the Masters and the British Open a couple of times, and he said to me that if we hit it to that, we’re fine, because you still have a putt at it.
“For me, if I wasn’t hitting it to four feet, I was getting so angry at myself. I had such a need for perfection, and the start of it was at 15 or 16 years old. Now, I know it was because I’m trans.
“I felt like if I wasn’t perfect at golf, I couldn’t become a professional golfer on the men’s side, which would have continued to allow me to suppress this. It was all just a goal to suppress what was going on that I didn’t want to bring up.
“That made perfection a necessity. I remember a high school tournament where I shot like two-under, I was still leading but I was so angry coming off the course. One of the other coaches came up and said they had never seen someone so angry.
“Back then, there weren’t kids shooting under-par scores all the time in high school tournaments, but for me, if it wasn’t perfect then maybe these thoughts would creep back up, and it was every bit of desperation I had to make sure this went away.
“I was starting to see Jordan Spieth playing in tournaments at 16 years old, so I was seeing that and thinking I’m not there, so obviously there was more I could do. If it wasn’t perfect I was losing it, because it took away thoughts of playing golf professionally which was all I had to hold on to when I was a male.”
As it turned out, Davidson would make it into the professional ranks before transitioning. However, once she made the decision to live her authentic life, it looked like golf might be off the cards for good.
Davidson decided to come out slowly, only doing so after having started hormone treatment for months, but when she did make the news public she was let go from her job. That meant she no longer had the finances to support golf, which is one of the more expensive sports in the US – with the cost of joining and playing at some courses reaching six figures.
Her desire to play golf did not go away though, and her clubs always stayed with her through moving houses – despite not knowing if she would ever play competitively again.
The hope meant that, even without knowing how likely it was, Davidson started speaking to the Ladies’ Professional Golf Association about their requirements for trans participation.
“I thought I would have to quit, and it wasn’t until I got a job working for a golf company with people who wanted to play golf and we would get discounts on clubs that I started getting back into playing,” she explained.
“I never thought I would be able to compete again, and I never thought I would be good enough, I just wanted to play.
“It’s ironic, I thought I wouldn’t be able to play competitively again, and yet that whole period where I wasn’t playing golf for two years I had nothing else to do, so I reached out to the LPGA out of curiosity.
“I told them I was trans, and they said I should look into playing. I just came out, so it wasn’t for now, it would be at least a few years, but I wanted to start the conversation. That proved to be very helpful that I started so early, they could see the changes and I just got my decision last month.
“I started having those conversations, and I felt bad – I was talking to the LPGA like I was still playing golf and still really good, but in reality I hadn’t touched a club for two years. I didn’t even know if I was going to be able to, but the way I looked at it was that even if I’m not able to play, by having these conversations with them it might help someone who is.
“I’m lucky that it has benefited me, but I didn’t mind the fact that it might not. I had nothing else to do, I was starting to enjoy getting into more activism stuff and working with a human rights campaign, so I didn’t even do it so that I could play golf – it was so that someone else could.
“The LPGA ended up putting me in touch with a lady named Bobbi Lancaster, who was the first trans woman ever to try to play in the LPGA. She went to Q-school but didn’t make it – for her it was more to set a precedent.
“Bobbi was 60 years old when she tried. We’ve become pretty good friends since, and I’m really grateful to her because she’s the one who started the conversation that has allowed me to get to where I am today.
“Even if she didn’t get there ability-wise, she started that conversation, and I don’t know if I would be able to do that. She was lucky that she had some money, and had already fully transitioned. Really they were more inclined to work with her because she had.
“To Bobbie, they were like ‘if we had requirements, you would meet them’. If I had been the first one, they may have seen things a little differently, because I’m more at the age where you’re seeing those athletes nowadays, and I think they would have taken it a bit differently – they might have seen me as more of a threat than they saw her originally.”
There were times Davidson was asked whether she would be better off competing in men’s events until she got clearance from the USGA and LPGA, but she felt that would harm her cause.
After all, trans participation is under a particularly intense microscope. Davidson is well aware of the arguments often used against trans women competing in golf, so her rebuttal is well-versed at this point – and she is confident that it proves the naysayers are merely hateful.
Aside from the difficulties in getting sponsorship to play – already more difficult in women’s golf than men’s before taking in many people’s objection to trans participation – and the significantly lower prize money in women’s golf, Davidson has seen the accusations to be simply false.
“Even now, I almost feel like the better I play, it does hurt my cause from a critics’ point of view,” Davidson reasoned.
“Any time I play badly, nobody cares, and if I play well, 100% of the people who were against this are going to say ‘see, that’s why’. Then they will say ‘that’s why he won’, and that I’m a guy, and go along like that.
“It’s a lose-lose with them. If I play badly, then I suck, but if I play well it’s not because I worked all my life to get here, it’s because I was born male.
“That takes me to my biggest point. You’re saying that somebody who was just born male, and haven’t put their whole life into something, can go and compete with women who have put their whole lives into it to get to the highest level in their sport.
“You’re saying that a man can go and compete with them? It’s funny, because these same people say they’re fighting for women’s sports, and they’re not, because all they’re doing is putting down all those athletes they say they are trying to support.
“I can understand people’s points of views when it comes to the muscular differences, but when it comes to something like golf, it’s not down to how far you hit it, it’s down to how few strokes it takes to get the ball in the hole.
“There is such a distance gap in the LPGA, yet the scores are so much more clumped in together compared to the PGA Tour where the distance gap is so much smaller, but the scoring gap is so much bigger. You will see a 10-under par round, and then a guy shooting seven over on the same course on the same day. If you see a score of 10-under on the LPGA, you won’t see a ton of scores over par.
“I have lost distance, it’s not like trans people are all these super-muscular men who think they can go and transition, that’s not how any of this works.
“Yes, I hit it a long way as a male, I was a little more gifted in that sense, but I don’t any more. There are 20 LPGA girls who have hit it further than me this year, and all I can think is that it’s okay for a cis-woman to hit it 290, but it’s not okay for me to hit it 270? There is no real reasoning.
“All it really comes down to is hatred of a group of people. You start to bring up actual facts, and they just spew stereotypes that they found.
“Six years ago, I would say I was one of the longer players though, so why would I voluntarily give up 30 or 40 yards? It’s all things that don’t make sense, but some people still say I’m doing it for all these advantages. There are actually no advantages for me doing this.”
As well as the double standards in analysing her performance on the golf course, Davidson has found inconsistencies crop up in the process of just getting into tournaments.
Davidson has finally been granted permission to play in both USGA, LPGA and Ladies European Tour events, and she will go to Q-school to try and earn a place on the US tour, but that does not mean it has been plain sailing to get to this point.
“I got a letter saying I could play in a USGA qualifying event but should I qualify, I still needed to go and meet the medical panel,” she added.
“It got to the point where all I could think about in qualifying itself was that if I played well, I still didn’t know if I was in. Any other girl could play well, and they would get that little piece of paper to say they were playing in the US Open, and they would know. If I got handed that piece of paper, I still wouldn’t know, I might have had to hand it to the next girl.
“Was it almost pointless for me to be there? If any of the other girls played well, they know what they’re getting, but if I played well there was still a decision to be made, and you could tell with the way it had gone that they were looking for a reason to say no. If I did well, that would give them even more reason to not want me there because I was actually succeeding.
“The LPGA say it’s a living document, so I will be subject to regular tests to make sure I’m not jumping on testosterone, which I do understand. I’m sure if I did something for a year, it would make a difference, but that’s not the kind of person I am.
“As much as I want to play golf forever, I want to be who I am first. I don’t want to gain a bunch of muscle, so that’s not something I ever want to do. If they want to test me, all power to them.
“It was all so much more drawn out and pulled apart than it really needed to be. I was initially told that the process would be three weeks, plus one for the LPGA process, and it turned into three months. It was this big, long mess.
“It’s not like this process got me anything. It doesn’t get me exempt or into any tournament, this literally just gets me to the same starting point that any other girl would get to by going online, clicking a box and paying their $200.
“What they get to do in six seconds took me three months, and that was just the paperwork part, let alone the six years that went into it beforehand.”
Due to the expensive nature of golf that Davidson explained in this article, she is running a GoFundMe to help achieve her goal of competing in the LPGA Q-School, which can be found here.