Women’s Golf Is In Trouble
Three months ago, while covering a Ladies European Tour event in Morocco, I caught up with a friend whom I used to play with on tour. After some initial small talk, our conversation got serious when I asked her how she was enjoying playing on the LET.
“To be honest with you,” she said under her breath, “I’m really nervous that we won’t have a tour to play on next year. We keep losing tournaments, and we don’t know the rest of the schedule for our season because we don’t have confirmed sponsors for our events or even designated courses,” she said.
The LET seems to have found itself in disarray. This was a tour that players loved to play on and a tour that players from the Ladies Professional Golf Association would play during their off weeks.
But a downturn was coming. This year, the LET had 15 events scheduled, down 11 events from six years ago. Plus, the rest of the tournaments for the season are not guaranteed, and many of them are co-sanctioned with the LPGA, which guarantees spots for LPGA players. This means the ladies playing on the LET have to make the most of every tournament they can get. Even worse, only six of the tournaments are actually played in Europe; the rest are scheduled in Dubai, India, Abu Dhabi, Japan, China, Australia, and Thailand. The already sparse schedule limits the earning potential for players on the tour and adds to the costs for players.
Many players believe the tour’s troubles began when Ivan Khodabakhsh took over the tour as CEO in 2012. Formerly the CEO of the World Series of Boxing, Khodabakhsh’s background in golf was limited, if not nonexistent. Players began organizing to have Khodabakhsh removed, and last week, it was announced he Khodabakhsh was leaving the tour.
Catriona Matthew, a longtime LET member and major winner, said to the Golf Channel, “[The LET] have got a lot of good players. It’s just perhaps they have had the wrong person at the head. So, hopefully, if they can get that resolved, it can start building itself up again.”
Still, players are confused by what has transpired over the last few years. “I know the LET tries hard and it's of course not their intention to lose the tournaments, but the thing I can say is that there is definitely something that went wrong the last few years. But as a player it's hard to say why,” says Anne van Dam, from the Netherlands, who joined the LET in 2015.
Sally Watson, from Scotland, believes other contributing factors outside of leadership have led to the tour’s issues: “I believe that the strategy of expanding the tour into Asia, where the events only have a limited LET field, has created a situation where it is extremely challenging for young players to break through as they had a significantly less number of playing opportunities as established players. I also think that focusing on the Asian market may have taken time and energy away from strengthening the tour's position in Europe.”
Players aren’t exactly certain how the tour found itself in its current position, and some are frustrated with how tight-lipped LET officials have been, which has served only to create uncertainty and confusion.
“A lot of players are concerned and confused more than anything because we don't know what's going on behind the scenes,” explained one player anonymously. “Most things are confidential, so we only get news when it's officially announced.”
One of the greater concerns regarding the future of the tour is how it will affect the growth of women’s golf in Europe if players there don’t have a tour to play on.
“The challenges to turning professional, especially the financial challenges, would only be heightened, in my opinion, were there no longer an option to play professional golf in Europe. Unless a young European female professional were to earn her LPGA card at her first attempt, the costs of trying to make a career playing professional golf would increase significantly, but even more potentially damaging would simply be the loss of playing opportunities to female professionals,” Watson says.
American golfer Amelia Lewis, who plays full-time on the LPGA and also in LET events during off weeks, says, “Thankfully I have a full-time job on the LPGA. But I know for a lot of players, they are scared about next season and if they’ll even have a tour to play on.”
As a result of this, Lewis believes a lot of European players will try to qualify for the LPGA or play on the LPGA’s developmental circuit, the Symetra tour.
“I know a lot of girls who are going to qualifying school for LPGA this season so they have a chance to make a living,” Lewis says. “This means a lot of players will have to step outside of their comfort zone of playing in Europe, or they will have to stop playing golf.”
Many LET players are hoping the organization looks toward the LPGA for guidance. Under the leadership of tour commissioner Michael Whan, the LPGA has added 10 new events since 2011, with 35 total tournaments. Their purse prizes have also seen a large increase: $67.35 million for the 2017 season, up from $41.5 million in 2011.
“I believe leadership starts at the top and trickles down,” Lewis says. “Mike Whan is such a good representative for the LPGA, and people are attracted to him and want to be involved. I really think that’s why the LPGA is doing so well. Basically, the LET needs their own version of Mike Whan.”
For Van Dam, she believes the LET will grow again if players stick together and make sacrifices in terms of purse prizes. “We need to come all together, stay positive and need to prioritize getting as many events in Europe as possible, even if that means lower purses.”
With that in mind, Van Dam added, “But to truly get back on track, we need to be able to show Europe how well the Europeans can play.”
But for now, the uncertainty lingering is leaving players with little optimism that they will have the opportunity to showcase their talent next year, and they have no choice but to wait it out.
Last week, the LPGA and the Men’s European tour are looking for a way to partner and help save the LET.
“I don’t really have a timeline for this. I do hope that before the end of the year we can sit down with them and say, ‘Here is the way we see it. Is this something you think we can do together?’” Whan said.
Photo by Wojciech Migda/Wikimedia Commons.
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