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Saturday, June 12, 2021

The LPGA’s struggle to emerge from the big boys’ shadow  

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As an undergrad studying English and History at UCD, I took a module on The History of Sport being taught by professor Paul Rouse. Roughly midway through the semester, Rouse opened a tutorial by propositioning the class. Asking for volunteers, he informed us that he was going to ask a series of questions and the reward for successfully answering would be a guaranteed “A” at the end of the year, and a “D-minus” the punishment for any other outcome.  

Well, being a gambler at heart and sensing an element of fun, I was one of four to raise their hand and accept the challenge. “Who are the current Premier League champions?” “Who is the current Olympic 100-metre champion?” “Who is the current Wimbledon champion?” and “Who are the current All-Ireland football champions?” were the questions as the four hot-seat occupants breathed collective sighs of relief. These were easy.  

It being late 2010, we quickly fired off our answers. “Germany, Usain Bolt, Rafael Nadal, and Cork.” But our beaming smiles were short-lived as Rouse responded with “wrong, wrong, wrong and wrong. The answers I was looking for were Arsenal, Shelly-Ann Fraser, Serena Williams and Dublin, but it’s good to know that misogyny is alive and well in UCD.”   

Of course, Rouse wasn’t really offering guaranteed grades – the university might take issue with that – he was merely highlighting that women in sport are discriminated against to such extent that most people don’t even realise they are doing so.  

Well, me bringing it up 11 years later is evidence that it was a point well made, and though women’s sport continues to grow in popularity – tennis aside – it is still an uphill battle for them to secure the funding and coverage necessary to genuinely challenge their male orientated counterparts.   

Golf, similar to tennis, is one of the few sports where power is the only real thing separating sexes at the elite level. When it comes to accuracy, shot shaping, chipping and pitching, and putting, the ladies are at least on an equal footing, and there is a strong case to be made that the LPGA Tour is a more enjoyable watch than the PGA Tour because all 14 clubs in the bag are required rather than the over-reliance on driver and wedge that we see in the men’s game.  

Unfortunately, like most of us, I’m confined to watching weekend golf on Sky Sports, and the regular PGA Tour is very much king of the airwaves. Would I choose to watch the gals over the guys given the choice? Well, there are definitely times where it’s a no-brainer. 

The ANA Inspiration going up against the Valero Texas Open was one, despite the fact that Jordan Spieth was on the brink of ending an almost four-year absence from the winner’s circle.   

But the Texas Open still took precedence on the telecast, with the ANA Inspiration only taking over once the day’s play had ended in San Antonio. Up against one of the weakest fields we’ll see on the PGA Tour all year, that the Valero still carried more weight with the networks is worrying.   

Of course, with a global pandemic heavily influencing schedules, this year was never going to be ideal, but the women’s US Open is set to clash with Jack Nicklaus’ Memorial Tournament and the LPGA Championship will compete with the always well attended Travellers Championship. Being majors, the ladies’ events should tip the scales but we all know that’s unlikely to happen.  

The Wednesday to Saturday scheduling of recent LPGA events has certainly helped, but maybe it’s time for the decision makers to adapt a different strategy to increase viewership and move the game out of the shadows. By running events from Sunday to Wednesday, the ladies’ game would reap the benefits of being the only show in town at the business end of a tournament and the networks – NBC’s Golf Channel in the US and Sky Sports over here – would be more than happy to give wall-to-wall coverage as opposed to the repeat shows that typically fill any gaps in programming.  

I know that regular live golf in the evenings would entice this writer to tune in and take greater interest and I’d wager that there’s many more out there who’d follow suit.  

As it is, we’re stuck in a vicious circle as the PGA Tour’s greater exposure leads to more column inches and social media interaction, which in turn feeds the demand for screen time. I’m not naïve enough to think that the reverse will ever be likely, but the standard of play and the golf courses on show – many of those being made obsolete by the bomb-and-gouge merchants are still capable of providing the canvas for the ladies to display their incredibly artistry – means that the gulf in prize-money and viewership is much larger than it needs to be.  

Who knows, this change in strategy may lead to future classes thinking twice should Professor Rouse query the identity of the Champion Golfer of the Year. Here’s hoping.  

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