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Women saved the Vic Open; now they're getting their equal reward

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The ISPS Handa Vic Open is a product of Aussie imagination and audacity.

It might be the most important event in women’s golf.

Yes, it’s the LPGA’s smallest purse ($1.1 million), but it’s the biggest idea in the women’s game.

Male and female pros will tee it up at 13th Beach Golf Links in Victoria, Australia, this week playing the same courses at the same time for the same amount of prize money. The men and women will alternate tee times.

It’s the only tour event like it on the planet.

That makes it a mustard seed of possibility for true believers wanting to narrow the sport’s enormous gender pay gap.

“For a woman playing in the Vic Open to be able to look her male counterpart in the eye, knowing she’s playing for same amount of prize money, that she is his equal for the week, there’s a real feeling of fairness in that,” said Karen Lunn, the Australian Ladies Professional Golf CEO and 1993 Women’s British Open winner. “There’s a real important message in that, and I think it’s what has attracted so much attention.”

So much that ISPS Handa stepped up to title sponsor this year, the European Tour and the LPGA joined the fold and a global television deal was struck, with Golf Channel airing three hours of coverage in the first and second rounds and six hours in each of the final two rounds.

This marks the eighth year the PGA Tour of Australasia and the ALPG have joined forces to play this event together.

“I think it’s a real flagship idea for golf,” said Aussie Matt Griffin, who won the Vic Open men’s competition in 2014. “If it can work here, it can work anywhere around the world.”

By joining the mix, the LPGA adds to momentum its beginning to build in an effort to narrow the pay gap that so severely separates male and female tour pros.

PGA Tour pros are playing for more than $340 million in prize money this year, the LPGA for $70 million.

Late last season, the LPGA announced the CME Group Tour Championship was raising its first-place check to $1.5 million. That’s greater than the winner’s check in 33 of 47 PGA Tour events. 

Shortly after that, the tour announced it was co-sanctioning the Vic Open, aligning itself with the tournament’s progressive ambitions.

And shortly after that, the Aon Risk Reward Challenge was implemented, with its season-long competition paying out a $1 million prize to both a PGA Tour and LPGA winner.

“We’re starting to see a series of pillar moments, where we are starting to create the kind of equality you see happening every day within companies that are sponsors,” LPGA commissioner Mike Whan said.

Whan says the LPGA has work to do boosting its popularity and following before it can expect equal pay on more stages, but he believes the pay gap is too severe. He believes his players deserve better.

In the Vic Open, the LPGA commissioner gets another model of empowerment to support.

“Without the women, the Vic Open wouldn’t be where it is today,” Griffin said.

Women helped rescue the Vic Open.

“There’s no doubt about it,” Griffin said. “Without the women, the European Tour wouldn’t be interested in coming down to be a part of this, and we wouldn’t have the prize money we have today.”

The Vic Open is a proud tournament with a rich history, dating back to 1957. Gary Player, Greg Norman, Peter Thomson, Kel Nagle, David Graham, Ian Baker Finch and Bruce Devlin all won the PGA Tour of Australasia event, but it slipped on to hard times.

Back in 2011, the tournament was in danger of going extinct, with sagging interest and a bare-boned purse of 100,000 AUD.

“The men’s event wasn’t really viable anymore, and we knew something had to change,” said David Greenhill, who was running the tournament for Golf Victoria at the time. “We were at a crossroads in how we were going to keep funding it.”

Greenhill was out walking his Cavalier King Charles spaniel after the 2011 tournament, wracking his brain over how to breathe new life into the event. He said his mind drifted back to his youth. He remembered his mother’s excitement getting to play the Vic Open men’s event on an amateur women’s invite.

Back in the ‘70s, a colorful promoter named Tony Charlton was running the Vic Open. He spiced up the event by inviting top female amateurs, like Greenhill’s mother, to play with the male pros.

Greenhill’s mother got paired with Nagle, who won The Open Championship in 1960.

“In his wisdom, Tony put a female amateur with two male pros,” Greenhill said. “That was unheard of back then, but Tony knew what he was doing. He was promoting the game, and it worked. My mother came back with stories about how supportive Nagle and the all the men were. It made an impression on me.”

So Greenhill approached his colleague, Bronwen Young, and they pitched the idea of not only reviving the defunct Victoria Women’s Open, but combining it with the men in 2012. They pitched it to the tournament board and then a state government’s oversight committee.

“Bronwen and I were adamant if we were going to do this, it had to be equal prize money for men and women,” said Greenhill, who is now an event senior manager with Golf Australia. “Being the dad to two daughters, I wanted them to have opportunities to pursue whatever they wanted as careers, and if they are good at it, to be paid the same as a male counterpart. We wanted to reflect that belief in the tournament.”

Greenhill said it created the spark the Vic Open needed.

“When you are trying something new, you never really know if it’s going to work,” Greenhill said. “But I got a phone call from Tony Charlton that first year, applauding the idea and thanking me for crediting him as the inspiration for it. After getting the phone call, and then seeing two gals and two guys go out for a practice round together at the start of the week, that gave me total confidence this was going to work.”

At first, there were skeptics among the male pros.

“Everyone was thinking, `If we’re struggling to get $100,000 for one purse, how are we going to get two purses like that?” Griffin said. “By the second and third year, everyone was embracing it.”

The Vic Open men’s purse has grown more than tenfold since the women joined. Today, the men’s and women’s combined purses are $3 million in Aussie currency.

“It has to be one of the fastest growing tournaments in the world,” Lunn said.

Just four of the top 50 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings are playing this week, with No. 7 Minjee Lee, No. 8 Georgia Hall, No. 22 Charley Hull and No. 41 Pernilla Lindberg leading the way. No male player among the top 50 is in the field, but that hasn’t curbed growing interest Down Under.

Hall of Famer Karrie Webb, Laura Davies, Paula Creamer, Catriona Matthew and Morgan Pressel give the women star power from outside the top 50 in the world.

Geoff Ogilvy, Andrew “Beef” Johnston and Ryo Ishikawa are the headliners among the men.

“It was a pretty last-minute addition to the LPGA schedule late last year,” Lunn said. “Hopefully, next year, when players have more time to get their heads around it, and after players go back with stories about how great it is, we’ll get more of the best players coming over.

“But, honestly, we have all our leading Australian women from the LPGA: Karrie, Minjee, Katherine (Kirk), Sarah Jane (Smith), Su (Oh) and Hannah (Green). We’ve got enough stars on the women’s side creating interest.”

The mixed nature of the competition brought out fans curious to see how it would work that first year. Golf Australia enhanced the experience by limiting ropes and allowing spectators to walk in the fairways behind the players. That same practice will continue this week.

Golf Australia CEO Stephen Pitt believes the game needs more ideas like the Vic Open.

“Tournament golf really needs to look at reinventing itself,” Pitt said. “Other sports are making some pretty giant strides in the product they are offering viewers. I think we’ve been pretty static. It’s really important to support new formats like the Vic Open and to see them flourish. It’s good for the long-term health of tournament golf and for the game, generally.”

The $1.1 million women’s purse is less than the $1.5 million first-place check the CME Group Tour Championship will offer, but the principle supported playing alongside the men makes it just as valuable a tour property.

The Vic Open is looking to grow its equal-pay concept, to see it spread.

“To be brutally honest, I’m surprised more people aren’t taking on the idea,” said Simon Brookhouse, Golf Australia’s general manager of operations. “There’s no doubt it works in tennis, with the majors. There’s no reason golf can’t follow.”

That’s the attitude that makes the Vic Open the most important idea in women’s golf.