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Is Tiger's sex scandal driving women away from the sport?

In the quaint, white, clapboard pro shop of Augusta National, there is one section of merchandise that sells out within hours of the first tee-off at each year's Master's tournament. The rows of pink golf visors, fitted women's tees and adorable seersucker baby overalls embroidered with the club logo disappear as quickly as a slice into the rough.

There may not be any female members of the exclusive club, but that doesn't mean women aren't major players in the world of golf.

"Women make a lot of the equipment purchases and a very significant portion of clubhouse merchandise sales," said Lee McGinnis, a golf pro and professor at Stonehill College in Easton, Mass., who studies women, sexism and golf. "Women have to be highly regarded and well respected in this game, and I don't think the PGA can ignore that. It's a very challenging situation they have on their hands."

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The challenge, of course, is Tiger Woods and the ongoing scandal surrounding his sexual relationships with a myriad of women who would never be allowed as members though Augusta's green, wrought iron gates.

As golf's most infamous player returns to the course this week, most sports commentary has returned to the question of whether he can still play and, if so, will he remain on track to surpass Jack Nicklaus's record of 18 majors.

But for the PGA Tour and the PGA of America, which promotes the game across the United States, moving past the scandal cannot mean simply ignoring the pornographic elephant in the room.

Women's participation in the sport dropped in 2009 for the first time in recent years, down to 20 per cent of the golfing population. But women represent an increasingly valuable demographic to the sport, which has also seen its financial fortunes decline with two years of economic turmoil and rainy weather. Women spend as much on their game each year as men, even though they play less. And McGinnis says they demonstrate a disproportionate degree of purchasing power when it comes to buying equipment and booking golf-related travel, and constitute as much as 40 per cent of Tour television viewers.

And so, despite Woods's pleas to keep the discussion of his affairs between him and his wife, how women perceive his fall from grace could have a very public impact on the sport.

"I think some women are probably going to be a little upset if everything goes back as normal," McGinnis said. "It might leave them feeling as though more needs to be done."

Of course, Woods's behaviour was not caused by golf. But his unsavoury sex life is problematic for a sport that has its own controversial history with women.

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This week, New York Daily News sports columnist Filip Bondy described Woods's decision to return to golf at Augusta National - where women have long been forbidden from membership - as "a slap in every woman's face."

Others have suggested the player should take a public stand against the club's exclusionary membership policy, something he has declined to do in the past.

Nancy Berkley, a golf consultant who writes regularly about women and the sport, said the scandal should be a wakeup call for the sport executives, forcing them to reconsider its reliance on Woods as the face of the game.

"Even the women who say 'Yeah, the guy's just fundamentally a really good golfer' still might say 'I'm not sure he should be a sponsor for Johnson & Johnson,'" she said. "Women are going to be fundamentally more critical of his brand image."

While Woods's penance has just begun, both Tour organizers and the PGA of America have recently made a concerted effort to improve their brands with women and increase the number of female golfers.

For the first time, there are two women on PGA of America's board of directors.

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At the U.S. Open in Pebble Beach this June, a Tour event, the celebrity foursome whose game will be aired before the final round may for the first time include a woman.

Peggy Ference, a 51-year-old from New Jersey, is a finalist in a contest for the final spot in a group that includes Super Bowl-winning quarterback Drew Brees, hockey legend Wayne Gretzky and actor Mark Wahlberg.

With a 4.5 handicap, she is actually the best golfer of the five contestants vying for the berth.

But women's acceptance into the world of golf has little to do with their ability to play the game.

On, Sports Illustrated writer Alan Shipnuck suggested that Augusta National should name investment mogul Darla Moore as its first female member.

"She's married to a billionaire investor, and with any female member, you have to deal with the husband too. She has the right significant other," he wrote of the woman who has appeared on the cover of Fortune magazine.

After long-time members Logan and Barbara Van Sittert asked for the dining lounge of the Phoenix Country Club in Arizona to be opened to women in 2007, the club was vandalized with graffiti calling Van Sittert a "bitch" and a "whore." She was 72 years old at the time.

Martha Burk, who gained infamy in the staid world of golf in 2002 when she protested against Augusta National's exclusion of female members, said it is this kind of overt hostility to women golfers that she was trying to address.

"It was never about women's ability to play golf on that course," she said this week. "It was about women's ability to become members of a club where the big deals are made."

But despite ongoing gender issues in the sport, Burk said she will not be attending this year's Masters.

"There would be not much point in me going: they wouldn't let me in," she said. "Anyway, I'm pretty sick of Tiger Woods and golf."

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