Nelly Korda had two weeks off in early April, and in between sponsor visits and major prep, she carved out time to go to another major for the first time: the Masters.
“That was really exciting,” Korda said last week before finishing T-3 at the first women’s major of 2023, the Chevron Championship. “That was actually my first time watching the Masters [in person], which was probably the worst day to watch. It was freezing.”
Despite the less-than-ideal conditions, Korda made the trip to Augusta, Georgia, to spend the day at arguably the most prestigious men’s golf tournament in the world, cheering on her male counterparts.
Less than two weeks later, Korda was playing the Chevron pro-am with PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan, who traveled to Texas to take part in the inaugural “Commission at The Chevron Championship” – a chance for some of golf's most influential leaders to gather and discuss innovative ways to push forward the women’s game.
Monahan played the front nine with Korda and LPGA commissioner Mollie Marcoux Samaan. He was able to play two holes on the back nine with current U.S. Solheim Cup captain Stacy Lewis before he had to catch a flight back to Florida.
Even though his visit was short and he wasn’t able to stay for the tournament, the PGA Tour’s leader made an effort, and the LPGA’s stars took notice.
“I think he realizes that they need to do more,” Lewis told Golfweek. “He said that to me multiple times … it’s just now whether we can push it forward and actually do something about it.”
Financially, professional golf is growing.
You see it on the PGA Tour, with its new designated-event model and ever-increasing purses; you see it in the pecuniary premise of LIV Golf; and you see it in the creation of non-traditional golf-related products, like the TGL golf league that’s set to launch in 2024.
But all of the above are benefitting men.
Their female counterparts have also experienced some financial growth on the LPGA Tour, with the 2023 season purse surpassing $100 million, but they're still playing catch up. While the majors have increased purses significantly in the last couple years, regular tournament purses are largely stagnant.
The Lotte Championship, held the week before the Chevron, offered a $2 million pot; that purse hasn't increased in seven years, since 2017. Of the tour's 26 official, individual, non-major events this year, 11 will offer a total purse of greater than $2 million.
One of those is being contested this week, the JM Eagle LA Championship. The inaugural event, held at Wilshire Country Club, will feature a purse of $3 million. That's great progress and a prime example of what the tour should feature regularly. Payouts like this should not be among the minority.
When you compare that to the PGA Tour: the smallest purse on Tour is currently $3.7 million, and only four Tour stops award their winners less than $1 million – and all of those are opposite-field events.
Then there are things that the general public might not think about: travel assistance, players-only locker rooms, meals. These are substantive matters that further highlight the disparity between the men's and women's tours.
“I've been a pro now [for] 18 years,” two-time Chevron Championship winner Brittany Lincicome told Golf Channel. “I felt like when I started on tour to now, I've always tried to build the game, make the game better, leave the game better than what it was. And we're definitely doing it. The majors have really stepped up – the U.S. Open is 10 [million dollars], KPMG is nine mil. I mean, that [was] unheard of 18 years ago. So, we're definitely going in the right direction. I just, obviously, wish it was a little bit quicker.”
It's stretches like this, when the women's game takes center stage, that offer a chance for issues to be raised and progress to be made.
Last week, the first major of the season was televised on NBC, Golf Channel and Peacock, spotlighting the game and providing an avenue to once again show why the women are just as talented and entertaining as the guys.
As for the purse, it was increased to $5.1 million, with $765,000 going to winner Lilia Vu. It’s far greater than regular events on tour – where the purses are typically one-third or less than the majors – but Matt Fitzpatrick won $3.6 million for his win at the PGA Tour’s RBC Heritage just a week prior. The Heritage isn’t a major, just one of the Tour’s new designated events that features an average purse of $20 million.
On Sunday, Vu received about what a two-way tie for fifth got in Harbour Town.
“It's really disheartening to be honest,” Lewis said in an interview before the Chevron. “We’re making a lot of progress on the women's side, and then to just see, all of a sudden, these purses just going up insanely and the amount of money these guys are playing for week in and week out. I mean, it's disappointing, to be honest.
“To be on the other side of it, where you've got girls that… they're making a cut and still losing money that week. To having to pay for your own set of irons because the manufacturers don't support us the way they do the guys. I mean, there's so many little things beyond just a purse, [just] money. [It’s] the trickledown effect of it. It's really disheartening.”
The LPGA players Golf Channel talked to – Lincicome, Lewis, Alison Lee, and Angela Stanford – aren’t asking for equal purses or a merger between the two tours; they’re asking for equity, not equality. They want to see faster progress, increased benefits, and support from the men’s side – from the players themselves, not just the PGA Tour and its leaders, like Monahan.
“It seems like all we talk about is equality and prize money, and I thought we were actually making strides,” major winner Stanford said. “I've always said, ‘Look, the men's money's not coming backwards, so let's try to make strides to get there.’ Well then, they take this giant leap.
“My take on it has always been, I understand the money part of it, but it's all of the other things that aren't equal. The courtesy cars, the food, all the extras. I've always said, how about equal benefits? How about that for a start? I think that's the part that's always kind of gotten me, because we're spending so much more money to travel than they are, and then they're still making more money. My thought was baby steps, but the first thing can be, can we get a better airline code? Can we get, or just have, an airline code, a better rental car deal or a courtesy car every week?
“…A lot of times women miss a cut, and they can't go home to their family. It's just too expensive. So not only are they not getting paid this week, they're having to pay for all their expenses and their caddie. Well, now, I'll just stay on the road because it's too expensive [to go home early]. I don't think the men [at the highest level] ever struggle with that. They can go home when they want. So, I wish we had equal perks.”
While the players' parking lot at PGA Tour stops is regularly filled with higher-end courtesy cars – a perk the men have come to expect at this point – that type of treatment is only reserved for special occasions for the women, like last weekend.
At Carlton Woods, every player received a courtesy car, and past champions got to drive a luxury car of their choice. For once, players didn’t have to think about renting a car. Instead, 2016 champ Lydia Ko got to spend the week driving a Bentley. Players who missed the cut even received a $5,000 stipend.
It was a welcome anomaly but, nonetheless, an anomaly.
When and how do these outliers (bigger purses, courtesy cars – not Bentleys; just regular sedans and SUVs, etc.) become the norm?
That was the question near the top of thought at last week’s meeting of minds; at least part of the answer calls for more support from the men.
If you want to grow the game, you must grow it across all genders, all platforms, and be willing to work together. A tangible example of this is the Grant Thornton Invitational, slated to debut in December at Tiburón Golf Club and The Ritz-Carlton Naples, Tiburón. It will feature 16 teams comprised of PGA Tour and LPGA Tour stars competing for a $4 million purse, while being showcased on both NBC and Golf Channel.
That whets the appetite for seeing more of the top men and women competing with and alongside one another.
“I would like to see the PGA Tour just be willing to work with us,” Lewis said. “We're not asking you to just give us money. Work with us and create some opportunities that can get the guys and the girls playing in tournaments together, in full-field tournaments together.
“What if Rory [McIlroy] and Lydia Ko were playing in a tournament, walking down the 18th hole together? How cool would that be? I just think it would be so cool for the game of golf. You want to talk about growing the game? That's how you grow the game. I would just like to see some more support on that side and exposure to being shown on TV – that kind of thing. I really think the PGA Tour could help us more with that.”
The women understand why the guys play for more money.
“It just makes sense, right? You have more people watching men’s golf; you have more people going out to watch men’s events,” Lee said.
But the men’s game and the women’s game aren’t that different. What the women are missing is increased support from corporate sponsors, fans and their male counterparts.
“We just need a few of those people to watch women's golf and understand what it's like out here and how good these girls are,” Lee continued. “I think if that were to happen, then everything will fall into place. It'll just be a domino effect.
“So, would I like to see more money out here? Yes. Have I made a great living out here playing women's golf? Yes. If you play great, I think you can make a great living out here. I'm not complaining about that. But I think it all starts with trying to get more people interested in women's golf, coming out here to watch, getting interested in the game and just paying a little bit more attention to women's sports.”
Lee pointed to other sports as examples of how men support their counterparts.
In tennis, the men and women often play their tournaments together, side by side, with majors happening as one with men’s and women’s divisions, as well as mixed doubles. As a result, fans go to watch both and support both.
In basketball, players from both sides are hyping each other up. Athletes are interacting on social media on a regular basis, and you’ll see NBA players going to WNBA games when they have a break in their schedule. Meanwhile, it’s a rarity to see the PGA Tour’s stars, specifically the players themselves, on-site at an LPGA event. Of course, the NBA and WNBA frequent each other's cities more often, but if the LPGA is in Florida, for example, chances are there's a handful of Tour pros in town who could come out and support.
Yes, they might be watching at home, but the optics also make a big difference. If fans and viewers see Jon Rahm taking in the Chevron Championship from the 18th green, they see the world’s No. 1 male golfer and a two-time major winner saying this is entertaining, this is worth watching, these women have got game. It’d be like Monahan’s brief but beneficial appearance at the Chevron – with people taking notice – but on an even larger scale.
It goes a long way in making people want to watch and want to go to LPGA events like they want to go to PGA Tour events.
“Even if it's as simple as coming out to support, like coming [to] watch an event if we're in town,” Lee said. “I know if they're in town, I go to watch. If they're playing in Vegas, if they're playing in LA, if I'm in town, I go watch a few holes. Just simple, small things like that.
“Think about tennis, too. You see so many celebrities getting photographed at these matches. And so you see that all over social media, and it's like, if young people see that, oh, [supermodel] Gigi Hadid was at the tennis match, let's try and go next year. Just small things like that. Because, now, I feel like that's how Gen Z is. And I feel like that's how the generation has been moving forward in terms of who likes to go to sporting events and how to get people to come out to watch.”
“I think the men should step up and just be supportive of women's golf,” Stanford said, echoing Lee’s thoughts.
The women’s game is steadily making progress, but as the men's game goes into overdrive, both players and leaders want to make sure the women aren't left behind. A thriving LPGA Tour offers aspiration to young women and girls. Growing the game can start at the top.
“We can hit the same drives, we can hit the same chips, we can do all the same things they do. Just maybe not as far, but still, our accuracy is really high up there,” Lincicome said. “Our putting stats are really good. I don't know if we just need to keep getting ourselves out there and building women's golf and just getting more exposure; I think [that] would help. Obviously, I would like to see it a little bit more equal. Doesn't have to be equal, like fully equal, but just keep creeping up, you know, before I [retire]. That would be great.”
Better benefits. Cameos at tournaments from men’s stars. Shoutouts on social media. Not having to question whether they’ll have a players’ locker room.
It’s the little things that add up to big things – changes that could grow the women’s side of the game over time. It’s not either or; there’s plenty of room for successful PGA and LPGA tours that work together in a symbiotic partnership.