Weekend Interview: Driving golf forward with PGA captain Alex Keighley

MUIRFIELD, an Open Championship venue, made headlines around the world last year when they announced a proposal to allow women members into their then 272-year-old golf club for the first time had been rejected by their members.

Alex Keighley has been at Huddersfield Golf Club for 14 years, the last four as their head professional having previously been assistant to Paul Carman (Picture: Tony Johnson).
Alex Keighley has been at Huddersfield Golf Club for 14 years, the last four as their head professional having previously been assistant to Paul Carman (Picture: Tony Johnson).

The decision was much derided, quite rightly, as being totally out of synch with modern golf’s efforts to prove itself an inclusive sport by going to great lengths to grow both the women’s and junior games.

At the same time as the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers was under attack for the majority judgment of just over 600 people, the PGA in England and Wales (North) – a body with more than twice as many members – made a decision that highlighted the anachronistic approach of the men of Muirfield.

For the first time in their history, PGA North decided to appoint a woman as their captain in Huddersfield Golf Club’s Alex Keighley.

It was a choice that grabbed far fewer headlines, but one that proved not all men still cling to the outmoded notion that women and children should be neither seen nor heard at a golf club – except in a servile capacity, of course.

Keighley officially took up her duties in March this year, coincidentally the month when Muirfield – having been informed by the Open’s organisers, the R&A, that they had been taken off the roster to stage the event – held another vote that saw their doors, this time, opened to women members.

She had an impressive CV as an amateur player that included her twice being Yorkshire champion, English Under-21s stroke play winner, and a member of Great Britain & Ireland’s Curtis Cup squad. For her, the nomination from her professional peers to be the PGA North’s 2017 captain places just as highly on her list of achievements.

“When they first asked the question would I be interested, it was a fantastic offer, and especially as a woman,” says Keighley, who turns 36 next week. “It’s fantastic to be recognised by my peers in a very male-dominated industry.”

Keighley, who has been a PGA Professional since 2003, will have to mesh her already numerous daily commitments as club professional at Huddersfield with her duties as PGA captain, which as well as attending presentations and dinners will include sitting on the committees of both the Yorkshire PGA and the North PGA.

“It will be a very pleasant experience going to different venues and events and representing the 1,300 or so pros in the region,” she says. “There are similarities with being captain for a year at a golf club.”

Keighley sees her elevation to the role as another example that, in general, golf is embracing a mindset more in tune with modern thinking, but she acknowledges there is still some way to go towards complete equality.

“I think in life there are still many male-dominated areas, but golf is working in a really strong and positive way,” she explains. “There are plenty of initiatives out there involving England Golf, for example, so that is great for the game. The initiatives are making golf more accessible – all of these things are very positive moves.

“Huddersfield is already a very inclusive club and I will probably get a better feel for how other clubs are doing during my year as PGA captain. I do think some clubs are still nowhere near – but some clubs are fantastic.”

Keighley credits former England Golf president Sue Johnson, also Huddersfield’s first woman club president, for the positive attitudes towards inclusivity that are prevalent at the Fixby club,

“I think here at Huddersfield we have been very fortunate to have Sue Johnson, who was obviously the president and has done everything to do in golf,” she says. “She has been a really good figurehead for us so the club is very forward thinking in that way, in terms of the juniors as well as the women.”

She also believes her predecessor as Huddersfield’s club professional, Paul Carman, her boss during nine years as his assistant, deserves to be recognised as having played a part in furthering the women’s cause in the game. For Keighley took over the post as assistant in 2003 from another woman, and also a fellow former Yorkshire champion, in Nicky Buxton.

“I had applied for jobs within a 30-mile radius after I decided to turn pro and I wanted to do my PGA qualification as well as continue my playing career (on the Ladies European Tour),” recalls Keighley.

“I posted the letter applying for the job with Paul and within 48 hours got a phone call, came for an interview and that was it really. Within a week I was working in the pro shop. I live locally, in Lightcliffe, so everything was just ideal.

“I didn’t find any resistance to me coming here and everyone at the club welcomed me with open arms.

“Fixby goes back a long way with me. I won the Yorkshire junior open here, I came here for kids Yorkshire coaching, so I have known the place for a long time and I am very familiar with it.

“It was Paul’s decision to take me on as assistant. He had had Nicky Buxton working for him before me and then she went on maternity leave and it all fell into place.

“I started my training in 2003 when I joined the PGA. I did my training and played the Ladies European Tour for five years as well.”

She has seen a big change in the demands placed on a club professional in the last decade, particularly since stepping up to replace Carman five years ago.

“With regard to the role’s responsibilities, there is a lot more work involving the management of clubs and managing the establishments really – golf has taken a big turning,” she says.

“Membership has been declining and we have had to work hard to promote golf and put it in a better light; we have had to move forward.”

These additional demands, plus a teaching schedule that is brimming with appointments seven days a week, mean she plays far less frequently than she once did, but she accepts the compromise willingly.

“I don’t play a huge amount, but that is just the nature of the beast really and it is fine by me,” she says. “I have been there, I have done my playing, so that is fine – the club needs someone to do all the jobs that fill my day.”

When it is suggested that her shop must at times be the equivalent of a golfing confessional, she laughs and responds: “Yes, I could tell you some stories – but I won’t.”

The interview was conducted in her shop in and among her dealing with all manner of queries and requests from members who know that, in Keighley, they are fortunate to have an extraordinarily committed, attentive and ever-cheerful club professional.

This year, the PGA North will benefit from those qualities, too.