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Opportunities for LPGA players expanding with increasing prize money

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NAPLES, Fla. – Million-dollar paydays aren’t so novel on the PGA Tour anymore.

In fact, the winners of 41 of the men’s 46 events in the 2019 wraparound season took home more than a million bucks.

Outside the FedExCup Playoffs, you rarely hear conversation over how much the winner will take home.

That’s not the case in the women’s game, especially at the LPGA’s season-ending CME Group Tour Championship this week, where the $1.5 million first-place check is a really, really big deal. It’s the largest winner’s check in the history of the women’s game.

“That would double my career earnings,” LPGA veteran Amy Olson said. “For most players out here, that could change your life.”

The $1.5 million check is almost twice what LPGA Hall-of-Famer Judy Rankin won in her entire LPGA career ($887,858) back in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

Rankin took home $50 in her first event as a pro in 1962. She took home $1,875 in her first victory in ’68.

“This is pretty spectacular,” Rankin said.

The $5 million purse is the second largest in women’s golf, trailing only the U.S. Women’s Open. That $1.5 million winner’s check is one of just two million-dollar first-place checks in the women’s game, with the U.S. Women’s Open upping its winner’s check to $1 million this year.

Actually, there is another $1 million payday in the women’s game. Carlota Ciganda took home $1 million for winning the inaugural Aon-Risk Reward Challenge, a season-long competition to see who best played the tour’s designated risk-reward holes.

Ciganda broke down in tears Tuesday when speaking about what the winnings meant to her and women of the LPGA.

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“It’s an unbelievable prize,” Ciganda said.

Ciganda spoke of her gratitude to LPGA commissioner Mike Whan and the expanding opportunities he’s helping create in the women’s game. She also thanked Aon, which offered the same prize money to women as it did to the men in its Risk Reward Challenge on the PGA Tour.

In a letter to LPGA membership and partners Wednesday, Whan outlined his vision for the tour’s future. He acknowledged the importance of tour partners like Aon and CME Group elevating opportunities for women.

“If a company’s stated values are to provide equal opportunities for women to advance and succeed, why wouldn’t their marketing/sponsorship dollars reflect that?” Whan wrote. “How is it that nearly every company claims equal opportunity is a cornerstone of their business, but 95 percent of all corporate sponsorship dollars are spent on male sports? There is no doubt we’re at a tipping point and more executives, shareholders and investors are questioning whether their corporate values are reflected in every aspect of their company, including marketing and sponsorship decisions . . .

“We have some incredible partners who 'walk the talk' on women’s issues.”

The top 60 players in the season-long Race to the CME Globe qualified for a chance to win this week’s jackpot at Tiburon Golf Club. With the new format, they’re all eligible to win it.

For players who didn’t even make it to Naples, there’s hope in this week’s purse.

CME Group CEO Terry Duffy said he would like to see this week’s purse inspire other LPGA title sponsors to up the ante, too. The Dow Great Lakes Bay Invitational announced just last week that it is raising its purse to $2.3 million, which makes it the second largest women’s purse among non-majors, trailing only the CME Group Tour Championship.

Those incremental increases will make a meaningful difference as other title sponsors follow suit.

Julieta Granada knows.

Granada won the first $1 million first-place check in women’s golf when she stunned the game’s more established players to win the LPGA’s inaugural playoffs in 2006, taking the season-ending ADT Championship that year.

“At the time, I don’t think I realized what winning that much money would mean,” Granada said. “I was so focused all year on just winning a tournament. I have a new perspective.”

Granada was 20 when she won all that money. Her future was bright with the hope of other big victories. But her game stalled. Then she hurt her back, and later her wrist. She lost her LPGA tour card and played through her struggles in a demotion to the Symetra Tour.

“I don’t think I could have continued playing when things got rough without all that money to fall back on,” Granada said. “I would have been forced to find another way to make a living.”

Jin Young Ko leads the LPGA money list this year with $2,714,000 in earnings. Mariah Stackhouse is 100th on the money list with $127,365.

Most players who barely crack the top 100 in money winnings aren’t left with much after taxes, travel expenses and caddie fees.

“For players getting started out here, it's almost impossible unless you have some friends, or some local sponsors who are really going to help you," Olson said. "Or have companies step up and say, 'Hey, we are going to support you in this, before you are a big name.' We, especially American girls, need that.

“A lot of girls from other countries already have that. We don’t have that. A lot of people question why more Americans aren’t at the top. There are a lot of young players who don’t have that backing and so they’re out in the first couple years. That’s a huge deal for players starting out.”

That’s why CME Group’s decision to up the ante gives hope to players who didn’t even make it to Naples this week; hope that a movement is in the making.

“The investment we’re seeing in the tour this week is big,” said Stacy Lewis, the former world No. 1 and two-time major champion. “Dow just made a big investment. I think you’re going to see more of that in other tournaments.

“In business, you have to spend money to make money. The LPGA doesn’t have a lot of money right now. We can’t do all the extra things the PGA Tour does, to get all the social media exposure they get. That’s why we need people like Terry Duffy to make investments in us, to do what others aren’t doing right now.”

LPGA pros relish a day when million-dollar paydays aren’t so novel in the women’s game.

“It’s cool to have an amazing organization like CME Group come and stand behind women,” Olson said. “That just makes us feel valued and appreciated. We have some great companies supporting us, and we’re grateful for that.”

And hopeful, too.