Column: On its own for 70 years, LPGA gets through big year

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The late Mickey Wright once recalled an LPGA Tour event where she was unable to sleep, all because of her location.

Louise Suggs was in the room next door.

Suggs, one of 13 women who founded the tour in 1950, was serving a term as LPGA president all while competing. Wright said she would be awakened around midnight by the sound of keys pounding a typewriter.

“Louise was writing letters to sponsors trying to get us tournaments,” Wright said. “Each night she worked past midnight and then she’d go out and play the next day. I never could figure out how she could do all of that and still play so well. People don’t realize how much those women worked to make the tour possible.”

Seventy years later, the LPGA Tour is still going strong, all on its own.

Whether more people should be paying attention – either in the gallery when fans are allowed again at full force or in front of the television – is a debate almost as old as the tour. What doesn’t get enough attention is that the LPGA continues to be the most successful sports league in the world for women.

All on its own.

They don’t have the advantage of sharing Grand Slam venues like in tennis. The closest to that was Pinehurst No. 2 in 2014 when the USGA staged the U.S. Open and the U.S. Women’s Open in successive weeks and set up the famed course so brilliantly that shot values were roughly the same.

They certainly don’t have the deep pockets of the men, not to mention the prize money and corporate sponsorship.

Ty Votaw, when he became LPGA Tour commissioner in 1999, highlighted the independence of the women’s tour with a reference to the American Basketball League. It was formed in 1996 during a surge in popularity of women’s basketball, but the league lasted only two seasons. It was unable to compete with another startup league, the WNBA, which had financial support and marketing muscle from the NBA.

“You take the NBA out of the WNBA and you’ve got the ABL,” Votaw said that day. “We’ve done it all without any help from our male counterpart.”

The year of the COVID-19 pandemic hit everyone hard. Of the American-based sports leagues, the LPGA Tour was the first to feel the effects.

The tour was four events into the season in the middle of February when tournaments in Thailand, Singapore and China were canceled. A week before the tour was to begin the domestic portion of its schedule, the pandemic shut down sports. Women’s golf did not return until the first weekend in August, a new event with a $1 million purse, the smallest of the year.

They lost 18 tournaments. They added two. They played four of their five majors.

And they finished.

The most amazing part of the season was a Symetra Tour player named Sophia Popov, saddled by injuries that nearly made her quit playing. She got into a tournament in Ohio, played well enough to earn a spot in the Women’s British Open and then won at Royal Troon.

The season ended on another unlikely note.

Jin Young Ko, the No. 1 player in the world, stayed home in South Korea with her family during the pandemic, even if that meant missing three majors. She finally returned a week before Thanksgiving.

Ko was a runner-up at the U.S. Women’s Open and won the season-ending CME Globe Tour Championship to earn $1.1 million, the richest prize in women’s golf. She played four times and won the money list at $1,667,925. She’s the first player since 2016 to start and finish the year at No. 1 in the world.

But then, the LPGA was claiming victory long before the final putt.

Yes, it finished. But it was more than that. Commissioner Mike Whan was nervous in April about 10 years of savings being depleted. He said the LPGA Tour lost a few million dollars but still had more in the bank than it did five years ago.

“The truth is we’re safer than I thought we would be. We’re stronger than I thought we would be,” he said.

Whan said the LPGA spent $3.5 million in unplanned COVID-19 costs. Out of 7,200 tests, there were 42 positive results – 27 at home, 15 at tournaments. The metrics were up. He referenced a record 3.3 million people engaging with the LPGA every week it played.

And then there was something his wife told Whan when he said he was complaining about some other matter.

“She said: ‘Mike, stop it. You didn’t lose a single employee in 2020. You didn’t have one hospitalized player, staff member, volunteer, local official, and you didn’t leave one venue in a worse situation than before you got there,’” he said.

The celebration at the season finale typically includes the release of the new schedule. Enthusiasm was high last year with 34 tournaments on the docket. Because of the pandemic, the LPGA played only 18.

Next year, the schedule is loaded again with 34 events, and that doesn’t include the Solheim Cup. Total prize money is approaching $80 million, the most ever.

The work doesn’t stop because it can’t. The deck is still one-sided in women’s golf. There are always letters to write. At least the typewriter has been replaced by a computer keyboard.

They can sleep well.

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