The social-media star also opened up about using her popularity to encourage more people to join the sport
American golfer Paige Spiranac: 'I was more naive when I first spoke out against cyber-bullying'
Often described as a golfer’s best friend on the first tee, a course starter is responsible for controlling the pace of the game by directing players to the tee at the right time, providing information regarding the course and calming frayed nerves, if any. The role is generally reserved for formally dressed, silver-haired men. This year, however, players will be introduced to fans and sent on their way by Paige Spiranac, the first-ever woman starter at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic tournament, which launched in 1989.
The American, who made her professional golfing debut at the 2015 Omega Dubai Ladies Master at the Majlis course in Emirates Golf Club, says: “It’s nice to be back for the Omega Dubai Desert Classic for my third year, and such an honour to be the official starter for the men’s tournament. They’ve just given me the list of all the names I need to call out. I was looking over that and stressing out a bit because I wanted to pronounce everyone’s names properly, especially since people mess up my last name quite often, so I know how it feels,” she adds with a laugh.
“I just want to do a good job, be respectful and make sure I start them off well. It’s also the first time that they’ve offered the role of the starter to a female. The decision is definitely a recognition of the growing role of women in the sport, which is great because they are trying to make the game younger and more appealing, and get more people interested.”
This edition also saw pop star Niall Horan, from One Direction, play alongside Rory McIlroy at today’s ProAm. The singer had previously caddied for the Irish golfer at the Augusta National in 2015. “The organisers put together a ProAm contest beforehand, and the winner was allowed to play with Rory and Niall,” continues Spiranac. “Having Niall at this event is massive. He’s such a superstar and he has such a big following, especially among younger females, so it’s an effective way to introduce them to golf.
“One thing I’m passionate about is growing the game and getting new people into it. Young women is a demographic that we’re always trying to tap, so to have Niall here and me as the starter, is the perfect way to make the sport interesting to them, but still retain its authenticity. It’s cool to be involved with such a progressive tournament.”
The 24-year-old knows a thing or two about being cool. Besides being a keen golf player, Spiranac is a bona fide social-media sensation, with more than 1.2 million followers – a role that she says started off as pure luck, but that she has embraced wholeheartedly. She is also the ambassador for The CyberSmile Foundation, a non-profit anti-cyberbullying organisation, and has been vociferous in her criticism of online bullying.
“I was always one to respond [to trolls], always quick to address the person immediately and head-on. Sometimes it worked for the better, and ended up becoming a friendship despite that initial meanness. But I don’t advise that now; I was more naive when I first spoke out against cyber-bullying,” she says.
“The best thing you can do is ignore trolls or block them, or report them. If you do say something, always be 100 per cent nice, because what you say is going to be out there forever. Even if you delete a comment, it can always be found. So I always ask my fans and followers: ‘Who do you want to be? What you post can still be around 50 years from now, so think about what kind of person you want to portray.’
“It’s easy to type something without even thinking about it, but it’s all documented these days. So be careful with your words, don’t hurt anyone, even if you’re defending yourself. You don’t really know on the internet who a person is, where they’re coming from or what they are dealing with. And you’re safer that way, too.”
Having dealt with her share of negativity, it’s safe to assume that Spiranac knows what she’s talking about. Despite being criticised for her “revealing” wardrobe choices on the green, she was one of the most vocal opponents when The Ladies Professional Golf Association in America implemented a strict dress code for women players last year.
“Let me put it this way,” she says, “my parents taught me to be very respectful of different cultures. When I’m in the UAE, for instance, I always make sure that I’m more covered. And in my role as the official starter at the golf, I’m here doing a job, and I need to look professional and be respectful. So my wardrobe for the four days is more business-casual – buttoned-up shirts, cute sweaters and skirts that are a bit longer. But I would wear exactly this is if I were the starter anywhere else in the world. I think what you wear is dependent on the job that you’re hired to do.
“When I spoke out against the LPGA dress code for golf, it was because I think female athletes should be able to choose what they wear, what’s comfortable for us. I’m not hired to play; I’m just out there practicing my game and having a good time. Whether I wear a turtleneck or a tank top, I’m still the same person. My wardrobe is the way I choose to express myself on a given day, and nothing more than that,” she maintains.
The outspoken Spiranac has no inhibitions about admitting that she’s decided to transition from playing golf full-time and professionally, to doing more publicity events and media work, and using her popularity on social media to become an ambassador for golf and bring more people into the fold. “I think I can have a bigger impact on the game than if I were playing full-time. I enjoy interacting with kids and young people.
“They may not want to play professionally or even recreationally in the present, but fans can always pick up the clubs at a later stage, or influence their daughters to do so,” she concludes.