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2000 Archives

A Rare Birdie in the Golf World
By Andrew Mourant

Women golfers may have been around a long time yet the sport remains a masculine stronghold: men are in the majority by six to one. As for female makers of clubs, they are an almost unknown species. Rene Cleaver, as far as she knows, is the only one in Europe.

It hasn't always been easy to persuade dominant males to let a woman make their clubs and help improve their game. But over the last year, discerning players have come increasingly to trust Rene's keen eye, steady hand and technical expertise.

Sceptics can end up being her greatest fans. One, recommended to Rene, from Cheltenham, southern England, by a golfer colleague, demurred about consulting a woman. Yet in the end he came along and was ecstatic. "He even recommended I put my prices up - which I did," says Rene.

When Rene last attended a symposium held by the Professional Club Makers Society, she was the only woman out of 376. But she regards herself just as another professional. "I wasn't made to feel a novelty - it was remarkable how I was accepted. Everyone was willing to exchange information," she said.

A few years ago, it would have been hard to imagine her living in Gloucestershire earning a living sizing up golfers and fitting shafts to heads. Then she was a part of corporate America, a Phd biologist working for a biotechnology company in Colorado and specialising in the production of vaccines for cats.

"I was around 40 when I started to get a bit bored with biological research and wanted to do something completely different though had no idea what that could be," she said. "What changed things was reading a book on self-help entitled What Color is Your Parachute? which examined the possibilities of transferring skills; choosing where you might want to live; looking at people you might want to deal with." The book made Rene aware that she possessed two potentially marketable qualities: good eye to hand co-ordination and that she interacted well with people. Now she wanted a second career that didn't feel like going to work.

"I'd hit the ceiling in my job. Decisions tended to be made for business rather than science reasons. I realised that I had a lot of skills that would enable me to become my own boss. I think I'm better on my own," she said.

She added, "I'd spent most of my spare time playing golf. When I had a set of clubs custom made, I took more interest than the average golfer and went into the workshop where they were being made. Then I visited other club makers and one offered to train me in custom fitting."

She went off to Austin, Texas, to learn everything about club fitting - the art and science of matching player with club; and had set up part time when family circumstances dictated a move back to her native Gloucestershire. Behind a nursery, a stone's throw from Staverton airport, Rene's artist husband Nigel built a workshop while she put out feelers in the local golfing community.

This needed diplomacy: when Rene wrote introducing herself and suggesting how they could work together, she got no response. But there were other avenues. After advertising in free golf newspapers, Rene was invited to write a regular column giving technical advice. This drew in some custom; though it is principally word of mouth that keeps business buoyant.

She turned over 40,000 pounds sterling in the first year, and trade is on an upward swing. She's one of just nine Britons holding the US-based Professional Clubmakers Association grade A qualification and she is working flat out. She spends up to two hours fitting each customer, examining their existing clubs, analysing swing, discussing playing goals. Clubs are machine-tested to measure the frequency and flexibility of the shaft. She buys top quality heads and shafts, using a chop saw to trim the latter down to size.

Unsurprisingly, Rene's services are not cheap - a set of 12 clubs, three woods and nine irons, could cost around 1,000 pounds sterling. But the clubs are designed to last a lifetime. Her reputation is spreading: Lady Golfer magazine asked her to give a talk at the workshop, and most who attended became customers. Meanwhile a website is being set up specifically for female golfers by a woman PGA teaching pro, and Rene has been invited to supply the equipment. In time she could be doing business all over the world.

Rather than bang the drum for women club-makers, Rene is keener for the skills and technology of her trade to be more widely appreciated. "In America, club-making is a profession that has gained a huge amount of respect,'' she said. "I don't feel there is a problem of discriminating against a woman: more than 90 per cent of my customers are men."

Contact:
Rene Cleaver
Club Masters
Dundry Nurseries, Bamfurlong Lane, Cheltenham
Gloucestershire, United Kingdom, GL51 6SL
Telephone: +44 1452 715007.

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