One thing that can be said about 2020 – at least among the printable things – is that it’s been a year of reflection. So much that was long taken for granted suddenly became precious – like a mere dinner with friends – that routine events are now savored in a special way. Included in the new normal created by COVID quarantines is the downtime to fully appreciate the progress of the LPGA Tour in its 70 years.
Golf’s global tour has traveled an amazing road since 1950. The Drive On spirit embodied by the players is much more than an inspiring attitude: It has evolved into tangible growth that can be measured in real terms that redefine what is possible.
When young girls look at the LPGA Tour they see limitless horizons for women and become aware of how hard so many worked to open doors through which the current generation can pass. Drive On wouldn’t exist as an idea if there weren’t real examples of its impact. Girls look at the LPGA and see opportunities.
The No. 1 player in the Rolex Rankings – Jin Young Ko – returns to the Tour next week at the Pelican Women’s Championship in Florida after a pandemic-imposed absence. The arc of Ko’s life provides a perfect window into the progress made in women’s sports and the leadership role the LPGA Tour has played in that growth.
When Ko was born in 1995, the Tour was very different. In those 25 years, players learned to hit the ball farther, find more greens, make more putts and score lower – all while earning much more money. And many more eyes now watch the women’s game. It wasn’t until 1995 that Golf Channel went on the air for the first time.
Now, an entire generation of players and fans have grown up with that expanded coverage. Those fans follow the Tour not just on TV but also at LPGA.com and learn more about the players through social media. None of that – Golf Channel, the Internet, social media – existed when Ko was born.
In 1995, what is now the most-prominent women’s team in the United States – the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team – had yet to play in the Olympic Games. As of now, it has won four Olympic gold medals and been a prominent player in the equal-pay-for-equal-play movement by female athletes.
In 1995, there were 24 players from eight countries among the 183 on the final LPGA money list born outside the United States. At the end of 2019, there were 116 players from 31 countries among the 182 listed. The LPGA Tour played its first tournament in South Korea in 1995 and had only four events outside the U.S. Now, about one-third of the tournaments are international.
The leading money winner in 1995 was Annika Sorenstam from Sweden, who took home $666,533. Last year, Ko direct deposited $2,773,894. No. 90 on the 1995 money list earned $49,000; last year it was $145,000. Not only has prize money grown, but as media exposure increased so have endorsement opportunities.
But none of that would have been possible if the depth and breadth of talent hadn’t taken a massive leap forward. While there have always been stars – from Founders like Louise Suggs and Babe Zaharias through legends like Kathy Whitworth, Mickey Wright and Nancy Lopez into the influx of international stars – right now is the deepest pool of talent ever in women’s golf.
Sorenstam won the Vare Trophy for lowest scoring average in 1995 at 71.0 strokes per round. This year, Sei Young Kim leads at 68.391. Twenty-five years ago, Laura Davies led in driving distance at 265.6 yards while this year Bianca Pagdangana is averaging 288.762.
Meg Mallon hit the most greens in regulation in 1995 at 72.6 percent while this year Kim tops the crowd at 79.2 percent. Kay Cockerill was the best putter in 1995 at 29.57 putts per round; this year Mi Hyang Lee leads the way at 28.73.
The U.S. Women’s Open, which will be played at Champions Golf Club in Houston Dec. 10-13, has a total purse of $5.5 million. In 1995, prize money was $1 million. Since 1995, powerful corporate partners like ANA, Evian, AIG and KPMG joined the major championship roster and powerful bodies like the PGA of America and the R&A joined the LPGA in staging majors.
In 1995, the Solheim Cup was still solidifying its identity – having been played only three times. But, the Solheim Cup last year at Gleneagles in Scotland was one of the most dramatic events in the history of team golf. The competition returns next year at Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio, and in 2023 goes to Spain for the first time.
By every measuring stick – performance stats, prize money, exposure, the quality of corporate partners – and the LPGA Tour has made enormous strides in the 25 years since Jin Young Ko was born.
I once asked LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan, who has led the Tour since 2010, what the key is to recruiting new sponsors and he said:
“To get them to a tournament. Once they experience the LPGA, they are sold on the players, the fans and the experience.”
Indeed, in my more than three decades of writing about the LPGA Tour and six decades of being around golf, I’ve found that the biggest critics of women’s golf among both the fans and the media – are people who don’t go to the tournaments. Once you experience the product, you realize how it’s different out there. You realize how it’s special.
When Jin Young Ko tees it up next week at the Pelican Women’s Championship, it will be a welcome return as well as a reminder of how far the LPGA Tour has come in the last 25 years. It’s a compelling chapter in the Tour’s Drive On story.