I gave up worrying about the LET (Ladies European Tour) a long time ago. It has been around, in various guises, since 1979, sometimes bounding along, sometimes limping but it has always survived, clinging on to existence, limpet-like, sustained mostly, probably, by sheer bloody-mindedness and determination. A bit like the suffragettes.
Golf, particularly professional golf, is not a necessity, it’s an indulgence. Like all sports it has always relied on patronage, aka sponsorship and most sponsors aren’t sponsoring out of the goodness of their hearts but because they see a commercial opportunity; they can make money out of golf. At the moment, they’re churning most of their money into men’s golf, with the women picking up what they can but all being well, that could be changing.
It’s a slow process but you never know, the men could be pricing themselves out of the market. The money they’re making is ridiculous, embarrassing even and their standard of living would be more than comfortable even if their prize money slumped to half its current level. Of course, some players might have to downsize to a mini-mansion or up their game but they’d still be able to make a more than decent living.
A few days ago, in an article in Golfweek, Stacy Lewis, a former world No 1, who’s had a good career, winning two major championships, wrote about the disparity between what the men and women earn. She lives in Houston and was at home for the men’s Houston Open, watching all the courtesy cars whizzing around, huge crowds massing for an event that featured $7.5 million dollars in prize money, with a field that “didn’t have a single player inside the top 30 in the world competing”.Lewis pointed out that the biggest prize in women’s golf is the $5.5 million on offer for the US Women’s Open. She worked out that over a season the women play for roughly 17 per cent of what the men do. In the proper workplace, according to the latest report from Payscale.com, women make on average 79 cents to every dollar earned by a man. Whichever way you look at it there’s room for improvement.
In the WPGA handbook of 1981, Peter Alliss, the WPGA president, was bullish: “There can no longer be any doubts. The WPGA tour is here to stay – and getting stronger all the time. If in 1979 we suffered the usual teething troubles of a new venture, last year saw us go a very long way towards silencing those who had little faith in our ability to survive….”
Barry Edwards, the executive director, said it was all systems go for a booming 1981. He wrote: “Women’s professional golf was hiding under a bushel before the emergence of the WPGA in 1979. It did exist in Europe but in such a small and insignificant form that most people simply ignored it. The WPGA changed all that. This is a booming sport and all those instrumental with its launching can feel justly proud……
“It may not be long before we receive more entries from the United States. Indeed, the USLPGA are very interested in our growth and plans are well ahead for a Europe-USA biennial match being organised……”
It took until 1990 for the first Solheim Cup to hit the schedule and it’s now a serious sporting contest as this year’s match at Gleneagles proved, showing that women’s golf can draw the crowds and hit the headlines.
Handbooks are a bit passe (sorry, not sure how to do an acute accent, or any other sort of accent) in this digital, electronic age but they’re an interesting record of a tour’s progress. In 1997, the Women Professional Golfers’ European Tour was billed as the American Express Tour; a year later we have the ELPGA, the European Ladies’ Professional Golf Association – “the launch of a new name and a new era for women’s professional golf in Europe”; the next year, 1998, it was the Ladies European Tour, apostrophe ditched and the emergence of “a new-look circuit”; by 2000 it was the Evian Tour……..I may have given up paying close attention to the behind-the-scenes politicking about this time and at least there were plenty of good players around, including the incomparable Laura Davies, Liselotte Neumann and Alison Nicholas, who won the US Women’s Open in 1997…….
Now, at the end of 2019, with the LET in another limping-along period comes news of a merger with the LPGA, “a long-term partnership to significantly grow awareness, sponsor support and professional playing opportunities for women in Europe……..The combination of the LET’s European expertise and relationships in the region, with the LPGA’s global strength and worldwide exposure and their shared vision for the future of the women’s professional golf and growth of the game, provides the core ingredients to ignite a tour loaded with upside potential.”
Well, who knows what that’ll all mean in practice in years to come. In the meantime, the LET Order of Merit will be called the Race to Costa del Sol from next year and the prize money of the Andalucia Costa del Sol Open de Espana Femenino will be doubled. It’s a start and Marta Figueras-Dotti, chair of the LET Board, was optimistic. The Spaniard had a distinguished playing career on both sides of the Atlantic before becoming a coach of some renown and is a passionate promoter of the game in general and the women’s game in particular.“Two teams, joining for one common purpose, will create opportunities we simply could not have pursued on our own,” she said. “At its foundation this joint venture is about creating opportunities for our members to pursue their passion and their careers as professional athletes. In just the 60 days since we began working on this joint venture, we have already seen a dramatic impact on our LET Tour schedule – an impact that will be a positive result for virtually all of our LET members.”
Mike Whan, commissioner of the LPGA, said: “We have experienced incredible growth in women’s golf in the US and this is an extraordinary opportunity to accelerate and expand the game in Europe as well. I’m excited that this is something we will build together with the LET.”
Here’s to a prosperous future.