Ray Volpe, a former head of the LPGA Tour in the United States, once said that “women’s golf is sold, not bought”. As in, it’s a tough sell. For men’s golf, on the other hand, the sponsors are comparatively queuing up.
Mark Lichtenhein, CEO of the Ladies EuropeanTour (LET), will know what Volpe meant. We are in mid May and right now there are only seven further events scheduled on the LET for the whole of 2018. One of the tour’s leading players, Melissa Reid, told the BBC she found the situation “heartbreaking”. But maybe, just maybe, there might be reason for some optimism on the horizon.
One of those seven events is the European Golf Team Championships at Gleneagles (August 8-12). Granted, the prize fund is €500,000, a huge amount less than is on offer at the Ricoh Women’s British Open at Lytham the previous week (€3.25 million) and half the purse at the Golf Sixes event on the European Tour, which also included LET players, earlier this month. But what it might do for women’s golf is to provide some hope.
This year marks the first time the various sports organisations have amalgamated their respective championships. This year is a first time for golf but sports such as athletics, cycling, gymnastics and rowing have held European Championships for donkey’s years. There will be male and female championships at Gleneagles, as well as an 18-hole mixed foursomes. Lichtenhein noted that at the Golf Sixes: “Sky’s coverage focused on the women because they were part of what made the event different. They showed that, playing from different tees, they could compete against the men, and that couldn’t happen with any other sport.”
There are two elements especially which excite him about the European Championships. “First, it will be shown on the BBC, so that maximises the potential audience. Second, we hope that people who don’t normally watch golf – any golf, not just women’s golf – will watch this in much the same way as you would probably never consider watching a curling competition until you see it as part of the Winter Olympics.” (Please, no jokes about competitive housework on ice!)
I hope Lichtenhein’s optimism proves justified. But even in America, women’s golf remains a tough proposition to market. A recent piece in Golf Digest noted that the South Korean and Chinese players were increasing their on-course dominance. “Among US players, there’s an increasing drift towards style over substance. Instagram accounts, good looks and general buzz seem as important as performance, if not more so…American female golfers can make real money in endorsements.” The queen of this phenomenon is Paige Spiranac, who is ranked somewhere below 1,000th in the world but has 1.2 million Instagram followers. She was accordingly paid handsomely to act as starter at the (men’s) Dubai Desert Classic in January. It is not hard to see how many women professionals see this as rather demeaning to them and the quality of their golf.
But then, perhaps sadly as well as inevitably, there has always been an aesthetic element in the appeal of women’s golf that does not apply to men. At the 1933 English Ladies’ Amateur Championship, the spectators and officials were astounded and aghast when a competitor named Gloria Minoprio arrived on the first tee for the opening round in flagrant disregard of what was then considered proper attire for a female golfer. She was dressed in a tight sweater and similarly designed trousers. She only had one club, although she did employ a caddie to carry it. She was beaten 5&4. In the Evening Standard, Henry Longhurst’s story about this extraordinary, seemingly exotic, woman ran under the headline ‘Sic transit Gloria Monday!’
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