What an opportunity for women’s golf.
What an opportunity for Canada’s Brooke Henderson.
It cannot have gone without notice among passionate golf watchers this week that while the various men’s tours continue to squabble — with stars of the rebel LIV circuit opting to sue the PGA Tour, and prominent golfers taking potshots at each other in the media — the women’s tour seems more harmonious, progressive and unified than ever.
Indeed, the LPGA is making history this weekend at Muirfield in Scotland, after centuries of male-only play at the fabled course.
Given that even Augusta National (no Black members until 1990) finally started to allow female members in 2012, it was an extraordinary exercise in unchecked sexism and discrimination that Muirfield managed to keep women out until 2016. Even then members voted against it, but were forced to reconsider when told they’d get no more opportunities to host the men’s British Open if they didn’t pry themselves out of the 19th century.
The result is that the Women’s British Open, the fifth major of the season, is taking place on the Firth of Forth. The PGA, meanwhile, is holding the Wyndham Championship, once called the Greater Greensboro Open, without much star appeal in North Carolina.
Basically, if golf’s your thing and you’re not watching the women this weekend, you don’t like golf. You just like men’s golf. While that’s certainly a viable personal choice, the reality for most of us is that the stars of the LPGA actually play a much more relatable game, particularly in terms of distance.
Henderson, the most successful Canadian golfer ever, finds herself six shots off the lead in Scotland heading into the weekend as she tries to make it two major victories in a row. The Smiths Falls, Ont. native won the second major title of her career last month, by one shot at the Evian Championship in France. She needed to make a tricky birdie putt on the final hole to hold off a challenge from tour rookie Sophia Schubert.
At bumpy and quirky Muirfield, the 24-year-old Henderson has been solid with two rounds of 1-under 70, but still sits six shots off the pace set by In Gee Chun of South Korea. With golfers from South Africa, Japan, Australia, the United States, France and Sweden also all high on the leaderboard, it’s as diverse a competition as any tour could hope for.
Given that Minjee Lee of Australia is the only female golfer to win two majors in the last three years, it’s a big ask for Henderson, ranked fifth in the world, to go back-to-back. She had three birdies in the first six holes Friday with one bogey, but then parred 11 of the final 12 holes with a single bogey the rest of the way.
It’s refreshing to see women taking on a storied links course such as Muirfield, which requires a different approach than many of the layouts on the LPGA Tour.
“We’re really proud to be able to play here,” Henderson said this week. “It’s a great sign for where the game is headed.”
It’s important to note this isn’t happening in a vacuum.
Augusta National now deigns to hold a women’s amateur event annually on its beloved lawns. There’s pay equity between women and men in pro tennis. At last Sunday’s UEFA European Championship women’s final between England and Germany, 87,192 fans packed Wembley Stadium to see the Lionesses bring home England’s first major soccer hardware since the 1966 World Cup.
“The stakeholders on the commercial side of sports are constantly searching for the next frontier, the next growth play. It is clearly women’s sports,” Octagon sports marketing spokesperson Dan Cohen recently told the Washington Post.
That doesn’t mean it will be easy.
Professional hockey players in North America seem to be having a heck of a time sorting out their differences. For women’s golf, where the strategy was once to make players into sex symbols to attract male viewers, the challenge now is to grow by selling great golf while avoiding the nastiness that is threatening to rip apart the men’s game.
There is already lots of speculation about a women’s version of LIV Golf. With LPGA members earning a fraction of what male golfers make, the attraction of a tour theoretically backed by Saudi money is obvious.
“I think if (LIV founder Greg) Norman does do this, it’s going to totally ruin the LPGA because I think most of the girls would go, just because the money is a game-changer,” former LPGA star Juli Inkster told Golfweek.
The LPGA is going to need a totally different strategy than the PGA, which once dismissed LIV out of hand and has all but fuelled the rival league by suspending players and blocking its own from competing on the Saudi-backed circuit.
Could the LPGA and LIV form some sort of partnership? Nobody really knows, and Norman is a notoriously unpredictable character.
“I would engage in a conversation if it would achieve our aim of promoting women’s golf,” said LPGA commissioner Mollie Marcoux Samaan. “Working together is always better than a fractured organization.”
What we do know is that Henderson, one of the LPGA’s most marketable stars, is likely to be right at the centre of whatever unfolds. Women’s golf is making history in Scotland this weekend, slowly building its product, and avoiding the ugliness currently engulfing the men’s game would seem to be a crucial element in continuing that growth.
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