Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 23, 2022

The Positive Side Of Money In Golf

Over the past few months, so many words have been written about the nexus of golf and money – including plenty of them in this space – that a reader might understandably quail at the prospect of navigating through several hundred more on the topic.  But unlike the reams of reporting and countless opinion pieces on LIV Golf, the lure of Saudi cash, and the future of the PGA Tour, what follows is a wholeheartedly positive account of the significance and symbolism of a major investment in professional golf.

On Thursday at Congressional Country Club, in a tony suburb of the nation’s capital, the Women’s PGA, the third of five women’s majors, got underway.  First played in 1955 and for many years thereafter as the LPGA Championship, the event received a major boost in 2015 when the women’s tour and the PGA of America announced a partnership that elevated the tournament to a status alongside the men’s PGA Championship.  Shortly thereafter, the multinational accounting and consulting firm KPMG became the title sponsor, giving the event its current branded name of the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship.

In its long history the tournament’s trophy has been lifted by most of the big names in women’s golf.  Mickey Wright, Nancy Lopez, and Patty Sheehan all won multiple times, as did Juli Inkster and Annika Sorenstam in more contemporary times.  Recent winners include Inbee Park, Canadian star Brooke Henderson, and, last year at Atlanta Athletic Club, Nelly Korda.  When she pulled away from third-round co-leader Lizette Salas over the final 18 holes to match the tournament record for lowest score in relation to par at 19-under, Korda’s third victory of the 2021 season and first career major elevated her to the top of the women’s world rankings.  It also enriched her bank account by $675,000 of the $4.5 million purse, which made the Women’s PGA the fourth richest stop on last year’s tour, tied with the Evian Championship and trailing only the U.S. and British Women’s Opens, and season-ending Tour Championship.

But this week, even as the field was becoming acquainted with Congressional’s layout, KPMG, the LPGA and the PGA of America announced this year’s purse would double, to $9 million, which brings to 300% the increase since 2014, the last year before the women’s tour partnered with the professional services giant and the PGA.  And the dramatic increase in prize money is not limited to just this week on the LPGA’s calendar.  The purse for the U.S. Women’s Open, contested three weeks ago at Pine Needles, nearly doubled this year, to $10 million from $5.5 million in 2021.  July’s Evian Championship is offering $6.5 million, $2 million more than last year, and in August the Women’s British Open will wrap up the major schedule with a $1 million increase in its purse, to $6.8 million.  The season’s first big tournament, now known as the Chevron Championship, also sharply increased its prize fund, going from $3.1 million to $5 million, and the Tour Championship will be played for an added $2 million on top of its already rich $5 million purse.

Just three years ago, Jeongeun Lee6 became the first woman to earn $1 million for winning a LPGA event when she in her rookie season she became the unlikely U.S. Open champion with a 3-shot victory over a trio of pursuers at the Country Club of Charleston.  This season the winners at the Tour Championship and four of the five majors will pocket at least that much.  In total, LPGA members will play for more than $93 million, a 33% increase over 2019, the last year played without changes forced by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Those numbers still pale in comparison to the PGA Tour, which in turn is in its own uncertain struggle against the mountains of Saudi cash being spent on the LIV Tour without regard to any financial return.  As all golf fans know, more than a handful of recognizable names who are now former PGA Tour players have signed contracts worth more than this year’s entire LPGA schedule simply to show up at LIV events for the next few years. 

Still, for the elite female golfers of the world the figures are stunningly good news.  Much of the credit goes to Michael Whan, now the CEO of the USGA.  When he took over as LPGA commissioner prior to the 2010 season, Whan inherited a tour that was shrinking in both events and dollars.  That first season the players on the new commissioner’s tour played 24 events, the fewest in nearly four decades, competing for just over $41 million in prize money.  This year the LPGA’s schedule spans the globe with 34 tournaments at which women golfers are chasing far more than twice as much money as was on offer little more than a decade ago.  Aside from the obvious opportunity for the best women players to earn a very good living, the LPGA’s success has helped it grow its developmental Epson Tour and allowed it to assist in stabilizing the finances of its counterpart on the other side of the Atlantic, the Ladies European Tour. 

Even in the wake of last week’s dramatic and entertaining U.S. Open, it is impossible to predict what the landscape of men’s professional golf will look like a year from now, when the USGA takes its national championship across the country to Los Angeles Country Club.  Will the Saudi sportswashing effort continue to bleed the roster of the PGA Tour, or will the schedule changes and increased prize money at select tournaments announced this week by Tour commissioner Jay Monahan blunt the allure of big paydays untethered from the annoying necessity of actual competition?  For that matter, will the USGA, and Augusta National and the PGA of America before it, and the R&A after, welcome LIV Golf members to the fields of the 2023 men’s majors?  No serious observer can claim to know the answer to those questions.  But golf fans can take some solace in knowing that the LPGA is charting a path of dramatic growth and continued success.  On the women’s side of the ancient game, all the new money looks to be well spent.

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