I wish this was just a newsletter about $10 million
We need to talk about what's happening in women's golf.
LIV Golf is turning men’s golf upside down. What does that mean for the women?
As a kid in Perth, Minjee Lee was drawn to the U.S. Women’s Open because of its “cool trophy.” She watched highlights of her idols, such as Annika Sorenstam and fellow Aussie Karrie Webb, winning the tournament, and dreamed of following in their footsteps. Often, practice putts in her backyard were, in her mind, for the coveted title.
She doesn’t have to pretend anymore. A couple of Sundays ago at Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club in Southern Pines, North Carolina, the 26-year-old finally got her hands on that famous trophy when she carded a breathtaking 13-under-par at the 2022 U.S. Women’s Open, four strokes ahead of the second-place finisher, Mina Harigae.
“It's been my dream since I was a little girl. It's the one that I always wanted to win on; now I've done it, and just feels amazing,” Lee told reporters.
After finally getting to lift the trophy — and after taking a phone call from her younger brother, PGA player Min Woo Lee, mid-ceremony — Lee was presented with something she likely never dreamed about as a child: A $1.8 million check, the largest winners payout in women’s golf history.
“It's such a large sum, and I'm really honored to be the first winner of this sum,” Lee said. “We're only moving in the right direction. I think it's only going to get better and better from here.”
That’s the hope, at least.
This January, the United States Golf Association (USGA) announced that ProMedica, a non-profit healthcare organization, was the new presenting sponsor of the U.S. Women’s Open. Subsequently, the purse for the event nearly doubled from $5.5 million in 2021 to $10 million in 2022; it will reach $12 million by 2026. That is, undeniably, a big deal.
When I went to Southern Pines to watch the major championship earlier this month, I planned to write about this monumental moment in golf history, and what the $10 million means for women’s golf.
But then I spent a few swelteringly-hot days walking the Pine Needles course and talking to players and their families about the day-to-day grind of the LPGA Tour. I witnessed first-hand talented players missing the cut and going home with next-to-nothing, top-50 players competing without any sponsorship patches on their clothing, and the dearth of on-course cameras in the early rounds. Simultaneously, I got sucked into following the daily hullabaloo over in the world of men’s golf, where the Saudi-backed LIV Golf venture has stirred up a circus of righteousness, shamelessness, and precariousness that has the potential to permanently alter the future of the PGA Tour and, perhaps, sports as we know it.
The more information I absorbed, the more the $10 million purse began to feel like a footnote, rather than a feature.
So, in true Power Plays fashion, my plan changed. Today we’re going to look at the gender wage gap in golf, how LIV Golf is making things worse, and what it will mean if the Saudi government decides to get involved in women’s golf. (Spoiler alert: It’s already happened.)
LPGA players earn about 82% less than their male colleagues
The LPGA is the oldest continuously-running professional women’s sports organization in the United States. It predates Title IX by 22 years, the WTA by 23 years, the WNBA by 47 years, and the NWSL by 63 years.
In 1950, the inaugural LPGA season, the 13 founders managed to put together a schedule that included 13 events and $50,000 in prize money. This year, in the LPGA’s 73rd season, there are 34 tournaments and a record $90 million in prize money.
But that growth needs to be put into context. It’s hard to nail down exact figures for PGA Tour prize money this season — because some majors still haven’t announced their purses and the bonus structure is complex — but the total is expected to be around $500 million.
That means LPGA prize money is just 18% of PGA prize money.
And honestly, when you zoom in, the gap looks even more extreme.
This season so far on the LGPA Tour, U.S. Open winner Minjee Lee is the only LPGA player to earn over $2 million, while six players have earned above $1 million. On the PGA Tour, Scottie Scheffler leads the way on the money list with a staggering $12,896,849, and Rory McIlroy is in second with $7,195,464. In total, 94 players have earned more than $1 million.
Now, I understand that these aren’t fair comparisons because the PGA Tour starts its season much earlier (September 2021) than the LPGA season (January 2022), therefore most men have played more tournaments as of this point in the season than the women.
So, let’s look at last season’s final tallies.
2021 LPGA year-end money list:
Jin Young Ko: $3,502,161
Nelly Korda: $2,382,198
Nasa Hataoka: $1,901,081
Minjee Lee: $1,542,332
Lydia Ko: $1,530,629
2021 PGA Tour year-end money list:
Jon Rahm: $7,705,933
Patrick Cantlay: $7,638,805
Bryson DeChambeau: $7,426,415
Collin Morikawa: $7,059,908
Justin Thomas: $6,537,153
Here are a few other comparison points that bowled me over:
In the LPGA Tour in 2021, 15 players earned over $1 million, two players earned over $2 million, and only one player earned above $3 million.
Meanwhile, on the PGA Tour in 2021, 124 players over $1 million, 67 earned over $2 million, 36 earned over $3 million, 24 earned over $4 million, 17 earned over $5 million, eight earned over $6 million, and four players earned over $7 million.
The 100th player on the PGA money list in 2021 was Gary Woodland, who earned $1,294,062. The 100th player on the LPGA money list in 2021 was Jennifer Chang, who earned $128,647.
This year on the PGA Tour, Scottie Scheffler has already set the record for most prize money earned in one season, with $12,896,849 in 19 events. (Doing this with 10 tournaments left on the calendar is mind boggling.) Scheffler’s year-to-date sum would move him to TENTH on the all-time LPGA career prize money list, above Lexi Thompson who has won $12,608,045 in 230 events.
None of these numbers account for individual sponsorship dollars, but its safe to say if those numbers were public, they’d only widen the gap.
It’s not all doom and gloom, of course. Prize money and player sponsorships are moving in the right direction in the women’s game, as the New York Times reported last month. But professional golf is a devastatingly expensive endeavor; players don’t sign guarantee contracts, and they don’t have teams to take care of logistics and support. The $128,684 Jennifer Chang won last year had to take care of her swing coach, trainer, flights, and hotel. Most players are lucky just to break even on a week-in, week-out basis.
And seventy-three years in, that’s just not good enough.
LIV Golf is exacerbating the gender wage gap
If you’re somehow unaware — in which case, I’m very jealous — LIV Golf is a new professional men’s golf tour funded by the Public Investment Fund, which is the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia.
Now, because you’re a Power Plays reader I’m going to assume you’re at least somewhat familiar with Saudi Arabia’s horrific human rights record, and get why partnering with them is problematic. But if you do need some words, I’ll briefly hand the mic over to sportscaster Bob Costas, who called players leaving the PGA Tour for LIV Golf “a clear-cut matter of morality.”
“There are no two ways around it, it’s blood money,” Costas said. “This is not like the AFL was once a challenge to the NFL, or the ABA, or world hockey association, to the established leagues. Maybe fans of a team would say, ‘Gee we wish our guy didn’t go over there.’ That isn’t the case. This is Saudi blood money.”
It’s blatant sportswashing. And so far, it’s working.
Multiple big names in men’s golf — including Dustin Johnson, Sergio Garcia, and most notably, Phil Mickelson — signed deals with LIV Golf over the past few weeks. Unlike the PGA Tour, LIV Golf allows signing bonuses (reportedly, Mickelson got $200 million just for joining the tour, and Johnson got $125 million), This year there are eight events and $225 million in prize money. At the inaugural LIV Golf event last week in London, South African golfer Charl Schwartzel won $4.75 million, the largest individual payday in golf history.
The Saudi government is reportedly willing to invest $2 billion over the next few years in LIV Golf, and since they aren’t interested in turning a profit or creating a sustainable business plan, it seems the tour is here to stay.
The PGA Tour is reeling, and has already suspended all the players competing in LIV Golf. It’s pure hysteria.
(I’m rushing through all this exposition, but highly recommend you read every word of this ESPN tick-tock of the last two weeks in the men’s game, because the delirium is truly in the details. )
So, at this point, you’re probably asking: What in the hell does this have to do with women’s sports, and women’s golf in particular?
Well, to state the obvious, it just exacerbates the gender wage gap in golf. The $4.75 million won by Schwartzel in one tournament is more than the entire purse available at three LPGA majors last season, the ANA Inspiration ($3.1 million), KPMG Women’s PGA Championship ($4.5 million), and Evian Championship ($4.5 million). The $200 million Mickelson took home just by signing with the tour is almost 900% more than the $22,577,025 the LPGA’s all-time money winner, Annika Sorenstam, won in her career. (It’s also 60% higher than the $120,895,206 that the PGA’s all-time money winner, Tiger Woods, has won in his career.)
And, because the PGA Tour is understandably concerned about LIV Golf, it is already pushing prize money and bonuses up across the board as it fights to keep its stars from defecting. This week, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan announced he was increasing the purses of eight existing tournaments by about $54 million total, and tweaking some future schedules and formats. But he also admitted that purely based on dollars, Golf Saudi will win.
"As I also said to the players [on Tuesday], let me be clear: I am not naive," Monahan said, via ESPN. "If this is an arms race and if the only weapons here are dollar bills, the PGA Tour can't compete. The PGA Tour, an American institution, can't compete with a foreign monarchy that is spending billions of dollars in an attempt to buy the game of golf.
"We welcome good, healthy competition. The LIV Saudi Golf League is not that. It's an irrational threat, one not concerned with the return on investment or true growth of the game."
Okay, none of that is great. But does LIV Golf pose a threat to the LPGA?
Here’s where shit gets really uncomfortable for us women’s sports fans.
It turns out, Golf Saudi is already incredibly involved in the world of women’s golf, as the great Beth-Ann Nichols reports in a must-read piece over at Golfweek (emphasis mine):
Already entrenched in the Ladies European Tour, Golf Saudi currently backs six events – including the Aramco Team Series – which feature prize money that’s three to four times a typical event on that tour. Players on the LET must compete for Saudi money to have a chance to keep their cards, forcing some to choose between their livelihood and beliefs.
With the LET falling under the LPGA’s umbrella, the tour is already a partner of the Saudi government. In addition, several LPGA players – such as three-time major champion Anna Nordqvist, Carlota Ciganda, Bronte Law and Alison Lee – sport both the Aramco Series and Saudi logos on their hats and shirts.
So, yeah. Let’s break this down.
The LET is, as its name suggests, a pro women’s golf tour based in England that holds tournaments in five continents across the globe, but predominantly in Europe. To simplify things, it is essentially a stepping-stone tour to the LPGA.
Remember in the section above when we broke down the pay disparities between the LPGA and PGA tours? Yeah, well, things are far bleaker on the LET.
In 2018, the LET — which was founded in 1978 — only put on 15 tournaments for a total purse of around $12 million. This was a five-year low in both categories.
But his year there are 34 events in 22 countries for a total purse of around $26 million in prize money, though over $13 million of that money is in major events co-sanctioned with the LPGA. Golf Saudi is a huge part of that growth, via the Aramco Team Series. This year, the Aramco Team Series has five LET events on three continents with $1 million purses at each.
Alexandra Armas, the CEO of the LET, told City A.M. in May that this buy-in from the Suadis helped the tour not only survive through the pandemic, but actually elevate.
“The players are competing for $1 million, and that’s now an expectation from partners who want to get involved. They want to get to that level,” Armas said.
“Growth generates growth. That’s also been a part of the success to a certain extent. In isolation they’re obviously very good events but also I think as an integral part of the tour it’s helped showcase what our players can do and what the LET is about.”
Given Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, and particularly its treatment of women, it’s nauseating to hear Armas say that these events help showcase “what the LET is about.” But it’s also undeniable that the investment has been vital to the players.
Bronte Law said last week that the money has been “life-changing” for many LET players, and the tour as a whole. Lydia Hall, a Welsh golfer who was an Amazon delivery driver during the pandemic, says the money available at Aramco events helps many newer players on tour stay “afloat.” Hannah Burke, a 34-year-old English player who doesn’t have any sponsors, said the Aramco Team Series event last week was a “make-or-break tournament” for her year, and perhaps even her career as a whole. Thankfully, she was a member of the winning team, and won enough money to turn a profit for her season.
It’s easy for me to be outraged at what is happening in men’s golf, as players who have already amassed generational wealth in the sport are actively spurning the tour that helped them build that platform and power in order to take said “blood money.” It’s harder for me to be angry at the women’s golfers who are playing in Saudi events merely to earn enough money to keep following their dreams. And yet, I’m not sure my apathy at the latter is justified.
I know we’re not comparing apples to apples here, but they’re both fruits of a poisonous tree.
So, where in the world does this leave women’s golf?
On Thursday, the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, the third LPGA major of the year, tees off at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland.
Last year, the total purse for the event was $4.5 million. On Tuesday, KPMG announced it was doubling that number this year, boosting it to $9 million.
It’s not $10 million, but it’s pretty damn close.
Overall, ESPN reports that the combined prize money for the five LPGA majors has almost tripled in the past decade, from $13.75 million to $37.3 million.
I don’t want to downplay this progress. It matters. A lot.
So, to answer the question I posed in my subhed, women’s golf is in a good place; like women’s sports as a whole, it’s growing. But it would be foolish to be satisfied with the status quo, given how massive the gender wage gap remains after seven decades. Just like other women’s leagues, it needs more investment, advocates, sponsors, and exposure at every single level.
It would also be foolish not to recognize how vulnerable both the LPGA and LET tours are to a takeover by Golf Saudi. It’s one (uncomfortable, morally questionable) thing for Aramco to have a few events within the infrastructure and calendar of the LET. However, it’s unlikely their ambition stops there. Golf Saudi could make a huge splash with a LIV Golf for women; it would take far less money for them to attract players, and the high-profile support of women’s sport could be an extremely useful tool in their sportswashing shed.
None of this is fun to think about. So, for now, I’ll tune into the Women’s PGA Championship from my air-conditioned living room, take a moment to appreciate $9 and $10 million purses, and hope other sponsors step the fuck up quickly.
(And hey, if nothing else, maybe Niall Horan can help move things in the right direction? Is that too much to ask?)