Former transgender player on victory by transgender golfer Hailey Davidson: ‘I don’t think it’s fair’

Lauren Miller has played 56 holes alongside Hailey Davidson in recent weeks and estimates that, on average, Davidson hits it 10 to 20 yards past her off the tee. Sometimes, Miller — a former SMU golfer who now competes on mini-tours — will be right alongside her.

But on the first playoff hole of a recent NXXT Tour event at Howey-in-the-Hills, Florida, Davidson smoked it 50 yards past her with a noticeable jump in swing speed. Miller said the ball came off like a rocket. Davidson reached a par-5 in two she hadn’t previously reached with a hybrid. Her iron shots down the stretch were higher, too.

“It was a completely different ball flight than I had witnessed over the previous 54 holes,” said Miller, who lost on the second playoff hole.

Davidson — believed to be the first transgender player to win a professional women’s golf event three years ago — has made much about her loss in distance over the years. Those who knew her well before her 2021 transition surgery, when she could hit it over 300 yards, thought she’d walk right onto the LPGA. Davidson said she averaged 255 yards off the tee three years ago and has since dipped to 245.

As for the changes Miller noticed in that playoff, Davidson said she swung out of shoes because she had nothing to lose. Down by three shots with two holes in play in relegation, Davidson was all but ready to congratulate Miller.

After taking a big lash at it on the first playoff hole, Davidson said she still had 203 yards left on a 405-yard par 5 and hit the hardest 18-degree hybrid she’d hit in eight years.

As for the ball flight, Davidson said, she’s always been a low-ball hitter and if she hits one high, it’s because she’s connected on what she’s been working on with Tony Ziegler.

“I don’t have another gear,” she insisted.

Hailey Davidson poses with the trophy after a recent win on the NXXT Tour. (courtesy Hailey Davidson)

A complicated topic that divides fans, competitors and rules makers, there are many questions about what is fair, what is right, and where those concerns intersect regarding transgender participants. There are numerous inquiries about natural advantages and disadvantages, and even past transgender participants don’t always see eye to eye.

Because the science isn’t conclusive, women’s golf has been left with plenty of opinion. And from speaking with many women who play golf at the highest level, it’s clear that many would like to see the LPGA make changes to its current policy.

Bobbi Lancaster’s opinion has flipped

A little more than a decade ago, Bobbi Lancaster became the first transgender athlete to compete in LPGA Qualifying School. The now-73-year-old physician says the LPGA pursuit was largely driven by innocence, mixed with a little bit of ignorance. Now the former honors biology student can’t ignore what she believes the science proves: Transgender women who experienced male puberty have legacy advantages that no amount of hormones or surgeries can erase.

“I don’t think it’s fair to have transgender women like me competing against cisgender women in women’s sports,” she said. “Period, end of story.”

Lancaster’s belief that integrity must trump inclusivity in elite women’s sports comes at a time when Davidson continues to draw national attention after her recent win. While this wasn’t Davidson’s first professional victory, the fact that the NXXT Tour has a new partnership this season with the Epson Tour prompted backlash as many believed Davidson was on the doorstep of the LPGA.

While that’s far from the case, Davidson did twice participate in LPGA Q-School, missing the 54-hole cut by a single stroke in 2022 and narrowly missing out on a chance to at least significantly improve her Epson Tour status if not advance to the second stage.

Bobbi Lancaster, the first transgender player to go to LPGA Q-School, poses in a golf cart. (courtesy photo)

On Sept. 24, 2015 – a date that’s tattooed on her right forearm – Davidson began undergoing hormone treatments and in January 2021, underwent gender reassignment surgery, a six-hour procedure that’s required under the LPGA’s Gender Policy.

Davidson confirmed that she’d like to go back to LPGA Q-School in 2024, but said that it all comes down to finances.

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. The 6-foot-1 Lancaster was the first to test that new policy at age 63. Davidson, a former NCAA Division II scholarship player on the men’s team, became the second.

“I was hoping that the sporting community would prefer to have the pendulum in one direction,” said Lancaster, “and I hoped that it would be in the direction of acceptance and inclusivity. That’s where I wanted it to be. Hey, just let us play. Let Hailey play; let Bobbi play, let Lia Thomas into the pool, etc, etc.

“But now that we’re starting to get more science here, my pendulum has swung the other way.”

Distance isn’t the only issue

In November 2021, the International Olympic Committee announced a major change to its transgender policy, leaving it up to individual sports to determine their rules. The following June, World Aquatics — the governing body of swimming — adopted a new policy that only allowed transgender women to compete if they transitioned before the age of 12, or before they reached Stage 2 on the Tanner Scale.

In March of last year, track and field’s World Athletics Council announced a similar ban on transgender athletes who have experienced male puberty.

Last week, the Telegraph was the first to report that swimmer Lia Thomas, the University of Pennsylvania athlete who made history by becoming the first trans woman to win an NCAA swimming title, filed a lawsuit to overturn the World Aquatics ban.

Lancaster looks at the research behind these decisions and believes the LPGA should follow suit in changing its transgender policies to ban trans women who experienced a testosterone-fueled puberty.

“Even though testosterone levels may be lowered for a year or two,” explained Lancaster, “there is indisputable evidence that the legacy skeletal, musculature, and aerobic changes remain unmitigated, and confer on these elite athletes an advantage.”

It’s more than how far a player can hit a ball that matters, she continued, pointing to the strength required to slash out of the rough or the ability to walk up and down hills with less fatigue. Even the ability to pound balls for a longer period is what she calls a legacy advantage.

Lancaster’s reading included a paper written by New Zealand University of Otego professor Alison K. Heather entitled “Transwomen Elite Athletes: Their Extra Percentage Relative to Female Physiology.”

Heather’s research includes the irreversible changes to male physiology, noting that “testosterone masculinizes the brain in utero and during early life … testosterone drives muscle mass, muscle fiber type and muscle memory. Most of the effects driven by testosterone cannot be reversed with estradiol (or cross) hormonal therapy.”

Heather notes that females have 10 to 12 percent smaller lung volume than males. Females also have a heart size that’s roughly 85 percent of males, relative to body size.

These are some of the legacy effects Lancaster now emphasizes as a reason for change.

“Because of the male puberty, you got to be a certain height, you got a certain skeletal structure – usually taller, at the elite level – longer legs, bigger hands. These are all levers. These are all what gifts males in general have that are advantages that can’t be undone by going on hormones or having surgery to remove your testicles,” Lancaster said.

“Your cardiac size, your cardiac output. They’re there.”

Amy Olson plays her shot on the 4th tee during the first round of the Palos Verdes Championship Presented by Bank of America at Palos Verdes Golf Club on April 28, 2022 in Palos Verdes Estates, California. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Veteran LPGA player Amy Olson, who is now on maternity leave, believes the tour should return to requiring that athletes be female at birth. Olson said there are many players who privately agree that the tour’s rules need to change, but few are willing to speak out.

“I think what women’s sports in general has to decide,” said Olson, “is if it’s worth it for there to be a category for women to be around for our daughters.”

While the threat of another lawsuit undoubtedly plays a large role in decision-making, Olson points out that the threat works both ways. Should a transgender woman earn an LPGA card and replace a biological female, the threat of a lawsuit against the tour could be just as strong.

“We as women now have to be willing to take a risk,” said Olson. “What is courage if there isn’t risk involved?”

Academics weigh in: ‘It’s a critical question’

In 2019, some of exercise science professor Gregory Brown’s students attended an NCAA Division II women’s track meet in which CeCé Telfer became the first transgender woman to win an NCAA title.

Brown’s students returned to class asking, “How is this allowed?”

The professor’s interest was piqued.

“The number that gets put out there a lot of times is that men are 30 to 60 percent stronger than women, which really depends on which muscle group you’re measuring, which type of lift,” said Brown, an exercise physiologist at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. “There’s another paper that came out just recently that said the difference is more like between 40 to 120 percent, with an average of 73 percent.

“If a man is, say, 30 percent stronger than a woman and undergoes testosterone suppression and estrogen administration, he only loses about 5 to 9 percent of that strength. That still doesn’t equal the playing field between men and women.”

Even before puberty, Brown notes, there are smaller differences. Boys are 3 to 4 percent faster at running; they’re 1 to 2 percent faster at swimming. When throwing a shotput or javelin, boys throw 15 to 20 percent further than girls. Puberty accelerates those differences.

“We just don’t know what happens with puberty blockers,” said Brown. “We really can’t say in any way shape or form based on any type of evidence, that if a man uses puberty blockers before Tanner Stage 2, that he is equivalent to females going through female puberty.”

What’s more, he continued, the long-term effects of puberty blockers on areas like brain development and cognition remain unknown.

University of Washington endocrinologist and professor of medicine Dr. Bradley Anawalt is a member of an NCAA Committee dealing with competitive safeguards and medical aspects of sports and is a consultant to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency Therapeutic Use Committee.

When asked if it’s possible to create a policy that will give all competing athletes a sense of fairness he sounded skeptical.

“It’s a critical question. The short answer is no,” Anawalt said. “Even if someday, years or decades from now, we figure out all of the science of puberty’s influence on athletic advantage, there will still be doubts about fairness based on other differences between individuals who are born with male genitalia and XY sex chromosomes and individuals born with female genitalia and XX sex chromosomes.

“No policy or accommodation will leave all competing athletes or all members of the general public with a consensus of fairness about hormone therapies that might confer a competitive advantage.”

In 2004, Mianne Bagger became the first transwoman 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 retired from tour life, told Golfweek three years ago that as she followed the emerging science around trans athletes, she began to lean more toward the exclusion of transgender women from women’s sports.

“Everyone has to be reasonable in this,” she said. “You can’t just deny some physiological advantages for the sake of inclusion.”

Even back then, Bagger wanted to see the LPGA extend its period of ineligibility to three years after gender surgery. The LPGA and USGA had instead recently gone the other direction, removing a two-year waiting period after surgery.

When asked for comment about where the LPGA currently stands on its gender policy, the tour told Golfweek, “In consultation with relevant medical, sports science and legal experts, we’re continuing review of our policy.”

Lauren Miller: ‘This is way bigger than just me’

The NXXT’s Miller decided that she wanted to pursue golf on a professional level around age 9 and, after receiving three degrees, including two master’s degrees from Mississippi State and SMU, Miller signed up for Stage I of LPGA Q-School last summer.

While her first stab at an LPGA card didn’t go as planned, the Niceville, Florida, native was eager to begin her first full year of professional golf on mini-tours like the NXXT, where she met Davidson in the playoff on Jan. 17 at Mission Inn Resort and Club, about an hour away from where the LPGA season was kicking off at the Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions.

Miller’s first time competing against Davidson came at a U.S. Women’s Open qualifier in 2021. She recalled standing on the range warming up at Oceanside Country Club in Ormond Beach, Florida, and hearing a different sound coming off the clubface a few spots down.

The following year, Miller found herself in a Ph.D. level gender in sport class after the sport funding course she needed to complete her master’s program at MSU was unavailable.

For three hours a week, Miller and one other student discussed and debated topics with their professor, including transgender athletes in elite women’s sports.

Fast forward to January 2024, when Miller suddenly found herself quietly in the center of the Davidson controversy. While the 22-year-old admittedly let that tournament victory slip away, Miller sees a bigger picture at play.

“If I win that golf tournament, no one really knows,” said Miller. “It does not get the press or the attention that it does now.

“If I had to lose for there to be more awareness brought to this, then I’m OK with that, as this is way bigger than just me.”

Former SMU golfer Lauren Miller poses after NCAA regional qualifying. (courtesy Lauren Miller)

Born with clubfoot (on both feet), Davidson underwent 30 procedures growing up, wearing casts up to the knee as a toddler. Her last surgery came at age 17. The impact of the painful condition still hinders lower body strength and stamina on the golf course.

Davidson believes the rules in swimming that led to Thomas’ NCAA success were too lax and are partly to blame for the backlash she now feels.

“Because that happened,” she said, “all the hate is being directed at me because everyone thinks it’s the same thing.”

Davidson withdrew from an NXXT event earlier this week thinking it might help calm the storm. After talking to family, however, she regretted the move and tried to get back in but was too late.

Friends in golf who showed support on social media after her recent victory, Davidson said, took down their posts in a matter of minutes.

“It’s a different animal of hate than people are probably used to,” she said.

Betsy King: ‘I just think it’s unfair’

Growing up in Indianapolis, there was no organized state high school basketball tournament for Therese Hession to play in. Female teams made up their own schedule and stayed within the city.

In the fall of 1975, Hession helped start the women’s golf program at SMU before joining the LPGA. After a decade on tour, she began her coaching career at Ohio State in 1991, eventually becoming the first woman to serve as director of golf for both the men’s and women’s programs at a Power Five conference school.

Hession, like Olson, would like to see the LPGA go back to its original female-at-birth rule, noting that it doesn’t matter if it’s one transwoman trying to get on tour or 10.

“I just really feel like everything I‘ve done in my life, I’ve had to scratch and claw to get to move the bar,” she said, “and I feel like this would set the bar back for women.”

Judy Rankin, a 26-time winner on the LPGA and Hall of Fame member who for a long time shaped coverage of the women’s game from the broadcast booth, agrees with Hession, saying that someone who has had years of male masculine development should not be able to compete on the LPGA.

1998 Solheim Cup
1998 Solheim Cup

Betsy King of the USA checks the wind direction in the 1998 Solheim Cup between Europe and the USA played at Muirfield Village, Dublin, Ohio, USA. (Photo: Craig Jones/Allsport)

Betsy King, another LPGA Hall of Famer and six-time major champion, was a three-sport athlete at Furman and recalled going to the president’s office each year with other female athletes to ask for more money.

At the national championships her sophomore year, King said the Paladins had only one team shirt, and they saved it for the final round.

“We were in a position where we as athletes stood up more,” said King, “because no one else was doing it.”

Count King as another player who’d like to see the LPGA return to a female-at-birth policy.

“I’m obviously not an expert in the science of it,” said King, “but as an athlete, it just is so apparent to me that even if you’ve had the surgery and been on hormones, there are differences that exist between males and females, that even if you transition, you can’t change that.

“I just think it’s unfair.”

‘The children didn’t create this mess’

After Davidson took to social media to publicly break down her yardages on the first hole of that playoff, Miller pointed out that the course was extremely wet that day, and that it was 45 degrees outside. The 247 yards Davidson hit it on that first playoff hole, she said, was all carry.

Miller, who didn’t really want to get into a back-and-forth with Davidson, also wanted to reiterate what others, including Lancaster have said, that distance is only one part of the equation.

“I share my story not because I’m angry at Hailey for beating me, and I just want to get back at Hailey,” said Miller. “This is way bigger than the story that happened on a small mini-tour in Florida. … Whether Hailey hit it 210 or 290, it wouldn’t change my opinion on this matter.”

Not long after Golfweek first spoke with Lancaster for this story, she sent a follow-up text message noting that she felt low. While Lancaster, who essentially went on a speaking tour after taking up professional golf, realized that what’s unfolding now isn’t all her fault, the pursuit of a dream did draw attention to transgender women competing in women’s sports, and scrutiny and backlash followed.

“Now, in many places, trans kids can’t receive medical care or play sports,” Lancaster wrote. “The children didn’t create this mess. It was people like me, who inadvertently pushed the boundaries until science and the world pushed back.

“Now I’m trying to be a small part of the solution.”

Story originally appeared on GolfWeek