In the space of a few weeks, two events have brought male and female professional golfers together in Europe. A sign of things to come? Signs of hope for the growth of women’s golf in Europe?
The simultaneous playing of the Lalla Meryem Cup and the Hassan II Golf Trophy in Morocco, and this weekend’s Golf Sixes, are both undoubtedly positives from an equality standpoint. I think Golf Sixes is going to be a brilliant showcase for a few incredibly talented female players, for once with the opportunity to be on level footing in the media with their male counterparts. Imagine if that opportunity was there every week? Or even for one regular tournament?
If you’re a fan of golf and have Sky, chances are you probably saw some of the men’s golf when they played in Morocco. Four days of full coverage gives you plenty of opportunity. But the women’s? How many fans know it culminated in a play off between three great players (and great people)? Getting a glimpse of that would have been a bit more tricky, given the fact there was no live coverage… at all. Maybe it’s the idealist in me, but find a better opportunity to put a regular women’s European event on display… the audience would literally already be there. The camera crews were already there… would moving a few of them 100 yards, from the men’s course to the women’s course, really be that difficult? I know it’s far from that simple. Contracts, money, logistics, companies, rights etc. But for all the talk of supporting women’s golf, of wanting to help it grow… taking advantage of the opportunities that are staring you in the face seems like a pretty good place to start.
Morocco was actually the trigger for this blog for a different reason. It’s one of my favourite weeks of the year. Immaculate course, perfect weather, fantastic hospitality and now, world-class practice facilities. Everything a professional golf tournament at the top level should be. Like Abu Dhabi last year, there’s a quiet bubbling happiness that we get to play such a high quality event. The kind of week that most players on tour envision for their career; want for their career. Of course there are the majors and the lure of America and the pathway to the top that I’d like to think everyone strives for, but in terms of travelling the world, making a living doing something you love… that’s what it’s about.
But making a living from 14 events in a year is pretty damn difficult.
14 events, excluding majors, for female professionals at the highest level in Europe. Of those 14, five are in continental Europe. Two are full field events (126 LET players). Two events. In a whole year. The men’s European Tour has 40 events, excluding majors and WGCs.
Despite not being full field events, the majority of our schedule does give a lot of players the opportunity to play. As of right now, the players who gained their full playing rights at Q School last year would get into roughly 70% of the events, not counting majors. Pretty fair; an improvement on last year; and fairly comparable to the men’s tour. Their Challenge Tour graduates get into roughly 85-90% of their total schedule, which is similar to the LET Access graduates this year. However… you don’t have to be great at maths to recognise that 85% of 40 is a hell of a lot more than 85% of 14. Playing regularly is the best possible way to improve; I’ve learnt that first-hand. But a player with full LET status (which I didn’t have last year) shouldn’t have to dip in and out of feeder tours to become better; they shouldn’t have to dip in and out of feeder tours anywhere. They should have the opportunity to become better while earning a living where they want to earn a living.
A third of the LET schedule this year is already over. Not everyone could afford to play that first third in Australia and South Africa (justifiably; I won one of the events on the Australian swing and barely made a profit for the trip). For those players their season may have started in Morocco in April. With the lack of full field events, those same players may not have the opportunity to play on the main tour again until France… in September… five months later.
In that five month period, there are 15 events (again excluding majors and WGCs) on the men’s European Tour. Two players with roughly the same categories on the two tours would get in a similar proportion of the overall schedule… yet the male player has potentially 15 more opportunities in the same time frame to play; to develop; to learn and to improve (and to make money). Money… the average purse on the LET for 2018, excluding majors, is €350,000. Take out the Scottish Open, which is elevated because of the LPGA, and that average drops to roughly €285,000. The average purse on the men’s European Tour, discounting majors and WGCs, is just over €2,500,000. Two hundred and eighty five thousand, versus two and a half million. Just writing it makes me feel a bit sick. These numbers aren’t necessarily to do with how a professional organisation is operated… they are to do with the way the world operates. The way the world views women’s sport, and the way the world is disinterested in the facts.
There are attempts to bridge the inequality gap. I have a lot of respect for the people in charge of most of the major professional golf tours in the world right now; from what I can see they are genuinely trying. Despite how things may look on paper, I think there’s an undercurrent of positive movement for women in general, for women in sport, for women golfers in Europe. But it needs understanding, and financial help, and media support, from the world.
Take the Vic Open in Australia. Probably the closest case of gender equality in the golfing world, and there must be huge credit given to the ALPG, the PGA of Australia and the LET for making such an event happen. Men and women on the same courses, at the same time, playing for the same amount of money. But even that event has embedded inequality. Without wanting to piss off the PGA of Australia, the strength of the respective fields is different, in relative terms. That might be arguable, but take the top ten from this year’s event in the male and female spheres: the average world ranking of the female top ten finishers is 152. The average for the men’s? 582. And walk onto the range there and talk about product support… golfing inequality in possibly its most black and white form.
I feel slightly guilty for criticising one of the best attempts at golfing gender equality, but I want to show just how far there actually is to go. It’s an example of an argument I’d be willing to make that it actually takes more effort and commitment to achieve greatness in women’s golf than in men’s. That’s not to diminish anything the men do; they are incredibly talented athletes, but as women we have to work harder for less. Less sponsorship, less product and equipment support, less hospitality, more barriers… for doing exactly the same thing. A 4 iron to 3ft is still a 4 iron to 3ft, a miraculous up and down from behind a bunker is still a miraculous up and down from behind a bunker. A birdie on the last to make the cut is still a birdie on the last to make the cut. The golf course doesn’t know what gender you are.
So go ahead and tell me women’s sport will never be able to compete with men’s sport. The Williams sisters would beg to differ. As would tennis great Billie Jean King, who explained why she took on a male opponent in an exhibition match (and won): “I was not playing the game to prove that women could beat men. I was playing to prove that men and women had the same entertainment value, which is why we should be paid equally.” Proven too, by the success of the LPGA. 27 events on the 2018 schedule (excluding majors), around 20 of which are full field. The average purse? Just over $1,750,000… or just under €1.5 million. Those facts alone show that women’s golf is financially viable, is marketable for sponsors and media; does actually have a product worth buying into.
But it doesn’t have to be a case of women’s golf in America thrives while women’s golf in Europe barely survives (or vice versa). Ten years ago, in 2008, there were 28 events on the LET schedule, 22 of which were in continental Europe. There are an array of reasons why this isn’t the case currently, a lot of which have been caused by instability in European financial markets and political situations. But that proof that the LET is an attractive proposition for sponsors is right there in the archives. Proof that European golf doesn’t have to exist in the shadow of American golf – it can be its rival, not its supplement. I think tours across the world can learn huge amounts from each other and I’d like to think they are willing to do so. I might not agree with everything and I might not have the facts about every possibility that is thrown around, but I do admire anyone in business or sport that believes in the capability of its own product and its own employees. It’s one of the reasons I think the future for the LET is brighter than people realise. But the future doesn’t stop the need to show that capability to the rest of the world right now. Players are limited in their ability to do that when they don’t have events to play in, and they don’t have events to play in because people with the means to do so are not putting in the money to support them. I might not have the answer (if I did I’d be doing more than writing a blog), but I know with certainty that flat out criticism, complaining and ignorance isn’t it.
Professional golf is an incredible way to get to spend your life, I’m not trying to suggest otherwise. We’re not all after superstardom and lavish lifestyles. I loved golf in exactly the same way when I was an amateur. But I, like so many others, don’t just love golf and the whole process of what goes into it and what comes out of it… I crave it. But we need more than just a couple of hits a year to survive. We need a constant dosage. And maybe I’m asking for too much… but if it can be in place for some, it should be in place for others. Why does gender, or the country that you play golf in, entitle you to more or less?
I can’t prove that all the data here is 100% accurate, but it’s close. It’s a lot harder than you’d think to make clear cut comparisons (that’s why it’s taken me a week longer than it should have to write this). But fact check this to death; the numbers might change a little. The bigger picture… it won’t change at all.