Augusta National Golf Club is turning women’s golf upside down.
If you care about the LPGA, that should be your hope, anyway.
Your hope should be that the investment made in the new Augusta National Women’s Amateur Championship announced at the Masters three weeks ago will eventually filter up the women’s ranks.
While the new amateur event comes with significant challenges for the women’s tour – with its first major (the ANA Inspiration) in a tough spot the same week as the Augusta National Women’s Amateur – there is LPGA seed money being planted in Georgia
There’s an investment that may grow the women’s game beyond fueling new interest among girls.
“I just hope corporations start recognizing the value of investing in the women’s game, the way Augusta National does,” two-time major champion Cristie Kerr said. “There are so many corporate sponsors in the men’s game who don’t invest a single dollar in the women’s game. Obviously, that’s their prerogative, but we have a lot of value as a tour.”
And there’s your hope.
Augusta National is a collection of power brokers, CEOs and leaders now invested in growing the women’s game.
They’re taking a special interest in watching these young female amateurs emerge, and it’s only natural to expect they’ll become emotionally invested in where these young players go.
And a lot of these young players will go on to the LPGA.
The LPGA is thriving under commissioner Mike Whan’s leadership, with Whan seeing opportunities where others didn’t. He saw Asian interest in the tour as an asset, not the liability so many thought a decade ago.
The LPGA had withered to 23 events in 2011 with $40 million in total prize money. This year, it’s up to 34 events with a tour-record $68 million in prize money. Whan did that with a lot of Asian backing.
Of the 10 tour events the LPGA has staged so far this year, including this week’s tournament in San Francisco, nine have Asian-based title sponsors. Even the LPGA’s domestic events are thriving on Asian money.
All six of the U.S. events staged so far this year have Asian-based title sponsors. You have to move into May and next week’s Volunteers of America Texas Classic before finding an American corporate title sponsor of an American LPGA event.
That starts changing with summer approaching, but overall there will be 17 Asian-based companies or organizations as title sponsors of LPGA events this year, with 14 American-based entities sponsoring or owning events.
Whan says that’s a good thing.
“The diversity of sponsorship on the LPGA makes us a stronger business,” Whan said. “Since I’ve been in office, we’ve worked through recessions in different parts of the world. None of those recessions were crippling to our overall schedule, because we have so many sponsors on board, from so many different places.”
Whan says American corporate interest is growing considerably, with more American marketing partners joining the LPGA this year. The next steps players would like to see are increased purses and endorsement opportunities for women.
The winning two-man team at the PGA Tour’s Zurich Classic this week will take home a combined $2,073,000. This week’s LPGA Mediheal Championship features a $1.5 million purse for the entire field.
“The income gap in golf is as much a concern to me as the corporate income gap is to working women,” 12-time LPGA winner Stacy Lewis wrote in an essay earlier this year for the World Economic Forum.
U.S. Solheim Cup captain and LPGA Hall of Famer Juli Inkster started wearing a San Francisco Giants cap this year with no endorsement deals on her bag or shirt. She has become more outspoken about the lack of corporate support for all female golf pros.
“I’m going to say it right now, and I probably shouldn’t say it, but I just don’t understand how all these companies get away with supporting PGA Tour events and not supporting the LPGA,” Inkster said at the last Solheim Cup. “It makes me a little upset, because I think we’ve got a great product. We deserve our due.”
With Augusta National investing in young amateur women, it may only be a matter of time until corporate America significantly steps up support. The game’s greatest power brokers appear ready to grow with the young women they will begin investing in next year. That should be the hope for anyone who cares about the LPGA.