Well, there are a couple of shocks in the blog this week. First, it was started long before the wee small hours of this morning and second, it contains a sentence that I’d given up hope of writing again, ever.
And what might that be?
Dare I write it down?
After all these years?
Ah, what the hell, here goes…..
Women’s professional golf in Europe is on the up. The LET (Ladies European Tour), that perennial miracle of a body limping along, barely breathing but stubbornly surviving – somehow – now has a strong foundation on which to build.
Unlike the we’re-better-on-our-own UK, the LET has embraced collaboration and it looks as though, as the song says, There’s Nowhere To Go But Up. Barring Nigel Farage or Ann Widdecombe embarking on another wrecking mission…..(Sorry, no Brexit bitterness spilling over here!!! – ed, wearing black armband.)
Admittedly, there wasn’t that far left to fall but this is golf’s equivalent of the post WWII Marshall Plan – I exaggerate a little but contend the comparison is valid in that the Americans have ridden to the rescue armed with dosh and, most importantly, expertise and a spirit of solidarity and cooperation.
Mike Whan, the commissioner of the LPGA (Ladies Professional Golf Association), whose praises were sung in the blog last week, was at The Buckinghamshire last Friday to announce the LET’s schedule for 2020 and explain the new LPGA-LET joint venture, officially Ladies European Golf Venture Limited, in more detail. He was understandably delighted to reveal that they’d added seven new events in 90 days of working together – a strike rate that any tour would envy – and that there would be 24 events, 15 of them in Europe, worth nearly 18 million Euro.
Rebuilding the tour with more events in Europe itself is one of the aims and the federations have been galvanised by the new set-up. As Alexandra Armas, the LET’s new CEO, said, “The federations are very motivated to get involved again. They want their players to be the best in the world, to be Olympic winners.”
Golf is in the Olympics again this year, in Tokyo, in August and the Japanese love their golf, revering their best players be they men or women. It’s the perfect place for the game to establish itself as a proper Olympic sport, deserving of support in every country from the ground level up. I wasn’t a fan of golf in the Olympics but I’ve changed my mind, simply because of the worldwide reach of the Games and the chance for golfers to mix with other world-class athletes, to move our game out of its own little bubble. Thanks in no small part to Justin Rose and Inbee Park, the gold medallists in Rio, who really, really appreciated what they’d done and place their gold medals right up there with their major titles, golf’s traditional currency of excellence. It’s time for golfers to stop being mealy-mouthed about the Olympics and dive right in there and, in time, sort out a format that engages everyone and raises the event out of the ordinary.
So, of course, the players need places to play and a strong European tour is in everyone’s best interests. To begin with, the top five at the end of the season will go straight to the LPGA’s Q Series, the final qualifying for the main tour and it’s envisaged that, in due course, as standards improve, the top players in Europe will earn a full LPGA card. The aim is to develop a tour that provides a path to the LPGA but is also strong enough to allow players who do not want to leave Europe to earn a decent living.
Whan, who seems to be a man doing a job he loves and is passionate about, said, “There’s zero downside and a lot of upside. We’re not doing this short term. We hope it’s still going in another 70 years. [The LPGA is 70 this year.] If our name’s on this, we can’t [afford to] fail. It’s a historic moment.”
There’s nothing like an inspiring pitch to raise the spirits but the great thing about this venture is that there’s substance too. The LPGA bring organisation and numbers to the aid of the LET, who’ve been operating on a wing and a prayer and a skeleton staff for too long but, crucially, the board of the new entity includes a representative from the R&A and a representative from the (men’s) European Tour. When Whan offered board seats to Martin Slumbers, the chief executive of the R&A and to Keith Pelley, executive director of the European Tour, he asked them who they’d like to assign to the task. They both answered, “That’ll be me.”
That alone was a boost beyond measure. Slumbers wasn’t at the Buckinghamshire gig but he had a good excuse: he was on safari with his wife, celebrating her 60th birthday. Pelley was there, in England and paid tribute to Whan, “the global leader in women’s golf”, to Marta Figueras-Dotti, the LET chair, for her “persistence for bringing us together” and described the venture’s first board meeting as “incredibly impressive and sophisticated”. He also spoke about his organisation’s commitment to inclusivity, recognising that his members’ interests are best served if golf as a whole is thriving.
Catriona Matthew, who led Europe to victory in the Solheim Cup at Gleneagles last year and will be in charge of the team defending the trophy at Inverness in Toledo, Ohio, next year, had already committed to playing in Europe this season, winding down after a successful career that included many years on the LPGA tour. She’s now on the board and joked, “I’ve come in when it’s all looking good. Having the benefit of the LPGA expertise can be nothing but good….The golf world is small and everything is connected now.”
It’s also a crowded market or “a wall of congestion” as Jason Wessely, head of golf at Sky Sports, put it graphically and the women have to work out a way to batter through that – or go round it or over it; they have to work out how to stand out. They have to be entertaining, personable and innovative. The hard work starts now.
This week the European Tour event, featuring world No 1 Brooks Koepka, Open champion Shane Lowry and luminaries Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson among many others, is in Saudi Arabia, a controversial and uncomfortable choice of venue. Should they be there, following the money regardless? It’s a moot point. But, having wondered whether it was better to engage with the South African regime during apartheid or go for the sporting boycott, the success of the boycott makes me think that playing in Saudi is not a great idea.
The women are due to go there in March and play for a substantial amount of prize money (though peanuts compared to the men’s purse) but Meghan MacLaren, a thoughtful, thinking golfer, whose blog meghanmaclaren is always worth reading, has decided not to go.I think she’s right. Saudi is no place for women.