The par-4 fifth at the The Dye Preserve in Jupiter, Florida, used to be a juicy risk/reward hole for Hailey Davidson at about 290 yards with a cut driver. Now Davidson jokes that she could get the luckiest bounce off a concrete path and still not reach the green. Six years into her gender transition, Davidson reckons she’s now shorter off the tee than the Korda sisters.
“Lost another half a club of yardage,” bemoaned Davidson earlier this month. “I thought I was done losing yardage.”
This week Davidson, 28, becomes the second transgender woman to tee it up in the first stage of LPGA Q-School. The first, Bobbi Lancaster, was a 63-year-old physician from Arizona who earned Symetra Tour status in 2013 but ultimately spent her time traveling the country as a human rights advocate.
Now Davidson, who earned a scholarship to play on the men’s team at Wilmington University, an NCAA Division II school in Delaware, before transferring to the men’s team at Christopher Newport, an NCAA Division III school in Virginia, begins her journey toward trying to become the first transgender player to earn status on the LPGA.
Davidson began undergoing hormone treatments on Sept. 24, 2015, a date that’s tattooed on her right forearm. In January, she underwent gender reassignment surgery, a six-hour procedure that’s required under the LPGA’s Gender Policy.
On May 13, Davidson won her first professional title on the NWGA tour (National Women’s Golf Association), beating several LPGA players in the process including Paula Creamer and Perrine Delacour. She is believed to be the first trans woman to win a professional tournament in the U.S. and now owns three titles.
On June 8, Davidson received confirmation from the LPGA that she was eligible to compete in tour qualifying school, after having met the tour’s criteria of at least one year of hormonal therapy and gender reassignment surgery. The 72-hole event, held at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, California, is being staged Aug. 19-22 and a minimum of 95 players and ties will advance to Stage II out of a field of 339.
Davidson knows that any kind of success she might enjoy on the LPGA will be laced with controversy. Her quest comes at a time when anti-transgender legislation is being passed and debated across the United States.
“I guess that’s what frustrates me the most,” she said. “If I play bad, then people will feel justified – ‘Oh well, she played bad and wasn’t good enough.’ – If I do anything good, it won’t be because of the fact that I put my whole life into this … it would be because I’m trans.”
In the footsteps of another
Bobbi Lancaster lost her job as a medical director not long after coming out to her employers about her gender transition. Rather than hire a lawyer, Lancaster went to the driving range to find peace.
It was a return to competition, however, that ultimately fed her soul, and three tournaments into her foray on the Cactus Tour, someone tipped the local paper to the story. After avoiding a reporter’s phone calls for four days, Lancaster eventually agreed to tell her story to the Arizona Republic. After that front-page feature, Lancaster fielded more than 100 interview requests from the likes of Huffington Post, Good Morning America and Sports Illustrated. She granted them all.
“There was such a curiosity about a transgender person to begin with, let alone a physician,” said Lancaster. “They wanted a lot of questions answered.”
Suddenly, Lancaster found herself on a whirlwind speaking tour at the expense of her golf game. In the midst of it, she decided to sign up for LPGA Q-School. In 2010, the LPGA voted to eliminate its requirement that players be “female at birth” not long after a transgender woman filed a lawsuit against the tour. Lancaster was the first to test that new policy.
Letters and lab tests were exchanged back and forth for weeks before Lancaster got approved to play on a Sunday, two days before the event began. She had her bags pre-packed and hopped in the car for the 4 ½ hour drive to Rancho Mirage, where she’d have one day to learn two courses.
When Lancaster arrived on the first tee at the Palmer Course for her morning tee time, a caddie told her that the other players in the group didn’t want to play with her because she didn’t belong.
Rather than push back, Lancaster eventually drove in front of the threesome and teed off, playing the next 15 holes by herself.
Lancaster shot 79-79-80-77 that week, which she considers a minor miracle given her mental state and late arrival. Now 71, Lancaster describes her life as rich and full and is content to live vicariously through Davidson. It was the LPGA who initially connected the pair, and Davidson is grateful to have a friend who has already traveled this road. Lancaster will be at Mission Hills over the weekend to show support.
“I’ve tried to give her a sneak peek of what it was like to be accused of being a cheater,” said Lancaster, “to have an unfair advantage. Those complaints might happen.”
It’s important too, Lancaster said, for transgender athletes to see the other side of the argument.
“There is evidence that we do have an advantage,” said Lancaster, “especially if going through a testosterone puberty like we did.”
Those advantages, she continued, are not so easily quantified in skill sports like golf, however, where distance is only one aspect of the game.
“It obviously didn’t dissuade me from taking a run at it,” said Lancaster. “But I never got much pushback because I just didn’t play as well as the other elite players. I was just too old.”
The journey to the first tee
Hailey Davidson was born James Scott Davidson, and moved to the U.S. from Scotland with her family in August 1997 – on the same day Princess Diana died. Born with clubfoot (both feet), she underwent 30 procedures growing up, wearing casts up to the knee as a toddler. Her last surgery came at age 17. Early on in her golf career, Davidson would have to miss a day of school after two-day tournaments to soak her feet in bath salts.
Davidson describes herself as an angry golfer back then, prone to breaking clubs. She knew something was different when she was 10 years old but did everything she could to shove it away. It was around age 18, Davidson said, that she was forced to grapple with how she felt and the possibility of a medical transition.
“I never saw myself living to the age I’m at now,” said Davidson. “I was so depressed and hated life. Not because of things that were happening to me, but all I could think in the back of my head was having to give up my life goal for being myself. Is it an even exchange? What is the better payoff?”
Davidson’s mother, Sandra, was supportive from the start. Her father, Hamish, the one who drove Hailey to all her tournaments and, as instructed, hid behind trees watching golf, felt completely blindsided by the news.
“For the first year, I probably shut my eyes to it,” Hamish said.
It wasn’t until Hamish told his own 85-year-old father, who took it in stride, that he realized that a change in heart and mind was in order. Hamish is now fully on board with a dream that switched from the PGA Tour to the LPGA. In fact, he’s in Rancho Mirage as Hailey’s caddie and protector.
“I will be there to support her in every way possible,” said Hamish, including standing between anyone who might want to create trouble.
Davidson lost 100 pounds in the span of a year after her doctor said she needed to drop weight before surgery. She’s also lost around 9 mph of clubhead speed and about 30 yards off the tee. Any strength advantage that she had, Davidson said, is fully gone.
“I’ve worked the last five years to get every inch of muscle off of me,” she said, “doing everything I could to make sure I would not stick out like a sore thumb.”
Because Davidson holds a full-time job in social media for NBC’s Peacock division under the Golf Channel umbrella, she hasn’t had as much time as she’d hoped to put in ahead of Q-School. In fact, she worked eight straight days before flying to California.
Rather than practice, Davidson chose to compete on her days off from work. After a financial sponsor fell through, she had to put lessons with PGA Tour Champions player Skip Kendall on hold, instead using all her money from tour winnings to pay off surgery bills.
So far, she’s raised $5,514 of her $9,000 goal on a GoFundMe account. Lancaster recently made a $300 donation.
Davidson estimates the total cost of Stage I to be around $4,000. No longer the angry golfer, the main goal is to try and enjoy herself.
“I want to make sure everything I do is positive to the point that there’s nothing negative people can say,” she said. “I’m not standing up on the first tee saying ‘Oh, I’m Hailey. I’m the trans girl. If it comes up, it comes up.”
On the issue of fairness
Mianne Bagger first dreamed of becoming a tour pro around age 10. When Bagger transitioned into a female in 1995, she thought she’d have to abandon competing as a professional golfer. This was about survival.
A deep love for the game, however, ultimately brought her back, and after she was invited to play in women’s interclub competitions back home in Australia, she went into the opportunity cautiously, asking herself, “Is this fair?”
When she wasn’t bombing the ball past the majority of the field and, in fact, being outhit on occasion, Bagger felt justified in continuing. Eventually, she began writing letters to various tours with “female at birth” language, hoping they’d begin to review their policies.
In 2004, Bagger became the first openly transitioned woman to play in a professional golf tournament at the Women’s Australian Open. She’d go on to become the first transgender woman to qualify for the Ladies European Tour.
Bagger, now 54, is retired from tour life but continues to follow the emerging science around trans athletes and what kind of advantage going through puberty as a male might give trans women over cisgender women (those whose gender identity matches their sex assigned at birth). The science isn’t settled, Bagger said. In fact, if anything, she believes it’s leaning more toward the exclusion of transitioned women in women’s sport.
“Everyone has to be reasonable in this,” she said. “You can’t just deny some physiological advantages for the sake of inclusion.”
To this point, Bagger points toward a paper by Emma Hilton, a developmental biologist at the University of Manchester, and Tommy Lundberg, a lecturer and researcher at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, that looks at how effectively testosterone suppression in transgender women removes the male performance advantage. The report states that the performance gap between males and females becomes significant at puberty and often amounts to 10–50 percent, depending on the sport.
The paper’s conclusion: “the effects of testosterone suppression on muscle mass and strength in transgender women consistently show very modest changes, where the loss of lean body mass, muscle area and strength typically amounts to approximately 5 percent after 12 months of treatment. Thus, the muscular advantage enjoyed by transgender women is only minimally reduced when testosterone is suppressed.”
Bagger would actually like to see the LPGA’s hormone therapy requirement extended beyond one year.
“It’s quite clear that merely one year of hormone therapy is not at all adequate,” said Bagger. “That’s if it is deemed acceptable for transitioned women to continue competing in women’s sport.”
She’d also like to see a minimum of three years of an ineligible period after gender reassignment surgery. The LPGA and USGA recently removed a two-year waiting period after surgery.
Joanna Harper, a trans athlete and researcher who authored the book “Sporting Gender: The History, Science and Stories of Transgender and Intersex Athletes,” co-authored research that analyzed 24 studies that assessed how long-term testosterone suppressing gender-affirming hormone therapy influenced factors like lean body mass (LBM), muscular area and muscular strength.
After four months of hormone therapy, trans women had Hgb/HCT levels (that effect oxygen levels in the blood) equivalent to cisgender women. After one year, transgender women experienced significant decreases in measures of strength, LBM and muscle area.
However, after 36 months on testosterone blockers, the strength, lean body mass and muscle of trans women remained above those of cisgender women. The study appeared in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
Harper told Golfweek that it’s important to understand that the paper gathered data from non-athletes. She believes that in golf, one year of hormone therapy would likely mitigate advantages held by trans women and allow for meaningful competition between trans women and ciswomen, but “no one knows for certain at this point.”
“Ultimately,” said Bagger, “research needs to be done that targets golf.”
‘How tough is she going to be?
Davidson, without question, meets the requirements of the LPGA’s Gender Policy and to that end, World Golf Hall of Famer Laura Davies says let her play.
Lauren Heinlein, a senior at Kansas who has competed alongside Davidson on the NWGA, describes her friend as “just another player,” and confirms that her distance off the tee is nowhere near a male touring pro and therefore nothing to worry about.
“If she starts going really well, then questions will be asked and that’s not fair,” said Davies. “Because if permission has been given, then game on. But I can see what’s coming if it turns out that she’s an absolute world-beater.”
It’s still difficult for Lancaster to find clothes and shoes that fit her 6-foot frame. No amount of whispering can undo a male voice box. Back in her playing days, when Lancaster would call a hotel and ask for the tournament rate, the voice on the other end would sometimes say “This is a female tournament, sir” or “Why do you think you qualify for these rates?” Lancaster learned to avoid the hassle by saying that she was Bobbi’s caddie, calling on her behalf.
Those were small frustrations though, in the big picture. After Lancaster’s story found its way to the media, strangers found their way up the long drive for no other reason than to circle in front of the house. Lancaster, who remained married to wife Lucy, put up a gate, bought a gun and secured their property after threats were posted on social media.
At advertised speaking engagements, Lancaster found herself planning escape routes shortly after entering a room.
She knows all too well the uphill battle Davidson faces.
“There are so many issues to being who she is and where it’s going to take her,” Lancaster said. “How tough is she going to be?”
Lancaster also has a warning about long-term health. Looking back, she wishes she would’ve stopped taking high doses of estrogen well into her 60s, believing that she may have injured her heart in the process.
Siddhartha Angadi, a cardiovascular physiologist and assistant professor at the University of Virginia, said published data does show that transgender individuals had a substantially higher risk of strokes and heart attacks.
“It’s just intoxicating to be building a body that your brain always identified as,” said Lancaster. “But I think I’ve hurt myself … that’s my hunch.”
Davidson, who went by Scott growing up, said that choosing a new name was a two-year process that cost her friends. She tried to keep the same initials given that things like belt buckles and putters were already engraved, but nothing stuck quite like Hailey.
Talking about someone’s previous name – known as dead-naming – can be traumatic for some trans people who want to bury certain parts of their past. It’s not difficult for Davidson to talk about Scott, but she wants people to know that a given name can be used as a weapon in her community.
Like Lancaster, Davidson hopes her journey to the LPGA helps to educate and inspire. Her success on a local mini-tour, she said, won’t lead to a flurry of trans women flooding the LPGA.
Harper notes that all kinds of advantages exist in sport – size, money, opportunity – but what’s not allowed is an overwhelming advantage. It’s the reason why age and weight categories exist. There are obvious disadvantages too, for trans athletes, Harper says, particularly sociological.
“This idea that because trans women have advantages, it must be unfair, that’s simply not true,” said Harper. “Trans women, 45 years after (tennis’) Renee Richards first started competing, are still hugely under-represented in elite levels of sport and are nowhere near taking over women’s sport.
“In 2021, it’s now, ‘Oh we’ve had a trans woman in the Olympics. Trans women are going to take over women’s sports.’ It’s not going to happen, folks. Forty-five years from now probably, people will still be saying trans women are going to take over women’s sports. I’ll be dead by then, but people will still be saying it.”