Update 03/12/20 – Statement from the LPGA: “Today, the LPGA informed its players that in an effort to minimize risks with the global outbreak of COVID-19 and following the California Government’s directive regarding events, the next three events on the LPGA Tour schedule are postponed: the Volvik Founders Cup in Phoenix, Ariz., which was scheduled to take place March 19-22; the Kia Classic in Carlsbad, Calif., which was scheduled to take place March 26-29; and the ANA Inspiration in Rancho Mirage, Calif., which was scheduled for April 2-5. The plan is to reschedule these events for later dates in the 2020 season.”
(Phoenix, AZ) – When the golf cart carrying Marilynn Smith was spotted, play always stopped so Founders Cup Tournament competitors and fans of all ages could run over to shake her hand, give her a hug, and pose for selfies. Each and every golfer also thanked her for her role in founding the LPGA 70 years ago, as part of a group of 13 pioneering and visionary women. Smith relished the fan and player interactions, and made them uniquely personal. Once, after taking time to first compliment my sunhat, she remarked to me with a smile, “I’ve been having fun out here for years, and I’m not going to stop now.”
The World Golf Hall of Famer, with 21 professional career wins, will be sorely missed at the 2020 Volvik Founders Cup Tournament. The cheery, energetic, two-time major champion passed away shortly after last year’s event, just days before her 90th birthday.
She would be first in line to agree that Women’s History Month should also include a huge celebration of women’s golf. And she would be thrilled to know that in 2020, her legacy continues to make an impact, with more LPGA/USGA tournaments, bigger purses, more diversity, and serious marketing initiatives targeting women golfers.
So, here’s to you, Marilynn:
The 21st Century LPGA
The first recorded golf tournament for women occurred on January 9, 1811, in Scotland. It is not known whether any prize money was awarded, but the fishermen’s wives who competed probably would not be surprised to learn that LPGA players today earn just 1/5 of prize money awarded PGA players.
However, signs are encouraging. In 2019, LPGA players competed for more than $70 million in prize money, and Sei Young Kim, winner of the season-long CME Globe (similar to the Fed-Ex Cup on the PGA TOUR), took home a record $1.5 million. This season, the combined prize fund is up to $75.1 million.
With 15 active mothers currently on Tour, and several expecting, the USGA has finally embraced the Century and created a maternity policy that no longer penalizes golfers for having babies. While the policy includes clauses that deal with exemptions and deferring events, the key change that drew cheers is the freezing of a golfer’s Rolex Women’s Golf Ranking or World Amateur Golf Ranking once she goes maternity leave, protecting her status until she returns.
As the Tour has grown, so has its international popularity and global diversity. A glance through the media guide is a travelogue that doesn’t just stop in Korea or the US. This year, 37 countries are represented in the Tour. Additionally, 19 LPGA Tour rookies representing 11 different countries will tee it up this season
Over the past several years, new events, including the Olympics (2016), and the inaugural US Senior Women’s Open (2018), have helped expose the women’s game to a larger audience.
However, the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur (2019) really moved the needle. According to GolfWorld, NBC’s Saturday Augusta tournament broadcast finale, which pitted ultimate winner Jennifer Kupcho against Maria Fassi, earned a .96 overnight rating, making it the highest-rated amateur golf telecast—men’s or women’s—in 16 years.
This season, at least seven tournaments will air on network television, as LPGA/USGA events continue to grow broadcast bandwidth.
Not all LPGA members are on the course. In fact, there are more than 1,800 LPGA certified professionals worldwide. Many are now making inroads in the traditionally male-dominated golf teaching profession.
Among them is notable Phoenix teaching pro Tina Tombs, who established a teaching academy at the Arizona Biltmore Golf Club. Not only is she a two-time LPGA Teaching & Club Professionals National Teacher of the Year, but has also been honored as one of GOLF Magazine’s Top 100 Teachers in America, and Golf Digest’s list of Best Teachers by State. Most recently, she was honored once again by the LPGA as a 2020-2021 Top 50 Best Teacher.
Former LPGA player Alicia Dibos holds the position of director of instruction at famed Winged Foot Golf Club, where she started as an assistant professional in 2002, and has held her current position since 2010.
“I’m very happy, proud that I’m director of instruction at Winged Foot,” said the Peruvian native. “It’s a phenomenal club, with wonderful members. It’s truly a wonderful place to work.”
She said her path to Winged Foot was serendipitous, explaining that, “You have to be a little lucky, be in the right time at the right moment.”
She added, “I always say that two great things happened in my career – making it through Q School, and to have met Tom Nieporte, who was head professional at Winged Foot, and hired me. Those were two life changers for me.”
Dibos is still competitive and most recently won the 2019 LPGA T&CP National Championship that was played at Pinehurst No. 8. She also competes on the Legends Tour, but with Winged Foot hosting the 2020 US Open, it’s doubtful she has much time to practice or play these days.
According to PGA of America President Suzy Whaley, 31% of new golfers are women, and the number of women playing golf has grown approximately 7% over the past six years. As a result, smart companies are now targeting the woman golfer specifically.
Women’s golf apparel, in particular, has undergone an extraordinary transformation, from ugly Bermuda shorts and clunky shoes to stylish designs – shirts, skorts, shoes, socks, hats and accessories – manufactured by all major sporting apparel companies. Now it’s easy to look your best on the golf course.
Even sun safety apparel has evolved from heavy shirts and thick sleeves to the stylish shrug (shawl/shoulder wrap), the “idiot mittens” of UV protection sleeves.
SParms (sparms.com.au), an Australian company, has pioneered technologically advanced sun protection clothing. Their shrug, for example, is super comfortable and lightweight, with effective moisture wicking. The best feature is that, unlike sleeves, it leaves no skin on the top of the arm exposed, and requires no readjusting of sleeves while wearing it. No more cutting off circulation at the top of your arms, or constantly tugging on a sleeve.
After seeing dozens of elite LPGA golfers from all over the world sporting the SParms, this writer, who has worn uncomfortable sun protection apparel for decades, gave the shrug a try. My first thought was. “Where has this been all my life?,” followed by “Why didn’t I buy one of every color?” I’ll never play like Stacy Lewis, Eun-Hee Ji, So Yeon Ryu, Gaby Lopez, Jessica Korda, Lizette Salas, or Brittany Lincicome, but at least we share the same good taste in sun protection.
Another area experiencing rapid growth is female-targeted golf travel. Barbara J. Gutstadt, Women’s Golf & Travel Concierge (womensgolfandtravel.com) personally leads 18-20 trips a year for women, and couples, to golfing destinations around the world. She said that 60% of her clientele are women who want to go on a golf trip.
Houston resident Gail Neely signed up for one of Barbara’s Solheim Cup trips. She went as a single, and had some doubts about not knowing anybody and perhaps being uncomfortable. She found the opposite.
“It’s very hard to find ladies who want to go to these things,” she said, “so it was a little intimidating at first, but gosh, I just fit right in, and Barbara was a great tour leader.”
She added, “It was awesome. I met a lot of ladies from all over. And the highlight was to experience the Solheim, and witness firsthand the spirit from the US and European fans. It was a bucket list trip.”
Barbara’s tours offer two flexible itineraries – A, for those who want to play golf on championship courses every day; and B, that combines golf and excursions.
She’s learned that couples have distinct preferences, and she expertly tailors trips to the distinct needs and wants of her travelers.
“Men like to do the 36 holes and smoke cigars. You can put them in a Holiday Inn, and they don’t care about their meals. Women like everything detailed and settled, they like to explore where they are, and they like nice meals and nice hotels. So it’s the combination that brings them together.”
Upcoming trips include the 2021 Solheim Cup, Paris, and a Persian Gulf Golf Cruise, with “build your own tour” options as well.
Retailers are also on the female golfer bandwagon and the PGA TOUR Superstore, in particular, aggressively markets to its female clientele with special events like 2019’s Golf Goddess Night and the upcoming Queen of the Green, featuring designer Jamie Sadok.
Explained Michael Sohn, general store manager, “The reason why we do it is #1, women’s golf is one of the biggest segments, besides kid’s golf, that we really market ourselves to. We always used to get ‘you don’t have enough things for women’ At PGA we have a very, very big selection and female golfers are a huge segment for us.”
Their events feature goody bag giveaways, putting and short game clinics/contests, and socializing.
Added Sohn, “We’re about building relationships. We cater to the women to let they know how important they are to us.”
Sohn has seen a huge increase in women coming in for club fittings by themselves.
“It’s changed a lot,” he said. “Most of our women shoppers don’t necessarily come in with spouses anymore.”
PGA TOUR Superstore will also be at the forefront of activities for the 5th annual Women’s Golf Day on June 2. This global initiative to introduce women of all ages to the game spanned 46 countries in 711 locations in 2018. (womensgolfday.com / #womensgolfday)
Growing the Game
None of the aforementioned strides and accomplishments mean anything if the game doesn’t grow among girls and women.
LPGA*USGA Girls Golf (www.girlsgolf.org), founded 31 years ago in Phoenix, is dedicated to encouraging that growth and introducing the game to girls all over the US. According to their website, in 2018, 80,000 junior golfers participated in a LPGA*USGA Girls Golf programs in over 500 communities. That’s up from 4,500 in 2010, a phenomenal 1,700% increase. Young girls are now the fastest growing segment of golfers, thanks to initiatives like this and the LPGA’s Drive On campaign.
The Forbes State of Golf for 2019 Roundtable participants also had good news about girls in golf. (Read the entire roundtable discussion at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/erikmatuszewski/2019/05/01/the-state-of-the-golf-industry-for-2019/#72441cdd5208)
Greg McLaughlin, World Golf Federation CEO, shared WGF research that showed in 2009, 21% of junior golfers were female; by 2015 it was 32%. And, since 2009, there has been a 16.5% increase in girls’ participation in high school golf. Also, two decades ago, only one in six U.S. juniors were girls and today it is one in three.
Even more encouraging are the strides being made in diversity. Again, according to the NGF, 26% of junior golfers are non-Caucasion , while just 6% were minority 20 years ago.
On the Tee
With the recent cancellation of three LPGA tournaments in Asia (Thailand, Singapore, China) due to coronavirus concerns, the players are ready to shake off the month-long rust and tee it up for the popular Volvik Founders Cup (https://www.thefounderslpga.com ). The 10th edition of this popular tournament will be played at Wildfire Golf Club at the Desert Ridge Marriott in Phoenix, from March 16-22. [UDATE: The cancellation of the Volvik Founders Cup and two events following it, bring to six the number of LPGA tournaments cancelled or postponed due to Coronavirus.]
The tournament, which honors the 13 founders of the LPGA, features the ‘Founders’ Perch,’ where LPGA Founders and legends of the game sit behind the 18th green to greet players as they finish rounds. The chair always occupied by “Miss Personality” Marilynn Smith will, sadly, be empty this year, but the tradition will continue with founders Shirley Spork and Marlene Hagge.
Is there a better way to celebrate Women’s History Month? I think not.