Underappreciated in the history of the LPGA is the incredible pool of talent that built the bridge from the daughters of the founders – the likes of Kathy Whitworth, Mickey Wright and JoAnne Carner – to the global tour created by Annika Sorenstam, Karrie Webb, Laura Davies and Se Ri Pak. That generation of players from 1975 to 1995 has been perhaps unmatched in the history of women’s golf – until now.
Think of it. In that group were Nancy Lopez, Betsy King, Meg Mallon, Juli Inkster, Beth Daniel, Patty Sheehan, Pat Bradley, Amy Alcott and Hollis Stacy. All are in the World Golf Hall of Fame. And now we have Sung Hyun Park, Lexi Thompson, So Yeon Ryu, Lydia Ko, Inbee Park, Brooke Henderson, Shanshan Feng, Ariya Jutanugarn, Anna Nordqvist and Cristie Kerr. All of whom could be in the Hall of Fame some day.
The LPGA is growing younger, stronger and more global. The 10 players above are from seven different countries. The average age of the winner in the 33 LPGA events in 2017 was 27.2; the average age of the Race to the CME Globe final top-10 was 25.5; and the average age of the Rolex Ranking top-10 at the end of the season was 26.5. The 22 winners of the 33 events came from eight countries with 16 under the age of 30.
Any corporation looking to expand its brand to a global audience, looking to reach a millennial market, looking to reach a fan base pumped with passion would be smart to look at the LPGA. As far as sports marketing goes, there is no better deal. The buy in is cost efficient and the product is fan friendly. It really is different out there as LPGA players do think like a founder – signing autographs, engaging with pro-am partners, interacting with the media and fulfilling sponsor obligations.
Oh, and the talent is exploding. All it needs to get to the next level is a slightly bigger stage on which to perform. Are you listening network TV?
“Last year at this time we talked about five players finishing with an average score of under 70,” commissioner Mike Whan said during the season-ending CME Group LPGA Tour Championship. “And as we tee up here … we have 12 players that are averaging under 70. So the depth on Tour is like never before.”
Whan noted that in the last six years, LPGA revenue is up 90 percent; in the last eight years prize money is up 80 percent; over this last year TV ratings were up 17 percent and the social media following grew 50 percent.
“The depth on the Tour especially at the top is like a time we have never had before,” Whan said. And the prospects for the future are staggering. “This year we'll introduce 72,000 girls to the game through LPGA*USGA Girls Golf,” Whan said. “If you go back 15 years ago, 17 percent of golf was women and 17 percent of junior golf was women. And if you look today, 32 percent of junior golf is women. And I don't know that we can take all the credit in the world for that, but I'm certainly going to try. Because I think that -- I believe there's no other program like Girls Golf.”
Whan also announced a restructuring of the LPGA Qualifying Tournament that will enhance the role of the Symetra Tour, elevating it to an even bigger role as the feeder tour of the LPGA by creating an eight-round Q-school final that includes tour members who lost their card, early stage Q-school qualifiers and Symtera Tour qualifiers. The stage seems to be set perfectly with a plan and with the players needed to carry it out. So what’s the missing piece?
“You've heard me say on things like this, whenever anyone asks me in a TV interview, what's the one thing you want, I say I want one TV executive to wake up and take a chance on us,” Whan says. “Because if you gave me 23 weeks on network TV, I feel pretty comfortable I could surprise some people.”
First, there were the founders, players like Louise Suggs and Marilynn Smith and Babe Zaharias. Then there was golf’s greatest rivalry – Mickey Wright and Kathy Whitworth. They were followed by that golden generation fueled by the celebrity of Nancy Lopez. Then came that global expansion led by Sorenstam, Davies, Webb and Pak.
And now we have this new generation, the now generation. This year – 2017 – will be remembered not for any one player but for the depth of talent of all the players. The LPGA, which has always stood on the shoulders of the founders, looks now to a future of unlimited expectation. The dream of those 13 women back in 1950 has become a reality. In fact, the LPGA could be poised to reach heights never imagined by any of the previous generations.