Alexandra Armas, the former golfer now running the Ladies European Tour, concedes she feels mixed emotions as the season prepares to go up a notch in Thailand this week.
There is satisfaction that this campaign will be the biggest and most lucrative yet in the tour’s history, with 34 events on a schedule that takes in the US, Australia, Africa and the Middle East as well as its European heartlands.
And there is understandable relief that it is happening at all given the uncertainty of the last two years. Although Armas was appointed chief executive in January 2020, this is set to be her first season in charge during which spectators are expected to attend all tournaments.
“You just don’t know how things are going to pan out, especially through the pandemic,” Armas tells City A.M.
“We had big ambitions to rebuild the schedule and rebuild in Europe – that was a big thing for us, to have our core back. It’s a relief that we’ve got the players out competing and working again. The schedule looks good – more prize money and events than they’ve ever had – but there’s a long way to go. The job’s never done.”
Two relationships have been critical in helping the LET get back on its feet.
First, a strategic alliance with US counterparts the LPGA, agreed before the pandemic, lent it stability and practical assistance. “If we hadn’t had that and the backing of their resources we probably would have struggled,” Armas says.
Second, closer cooperation with Golf Saudi brought about a new string of big-money events, the Aramco Team Series.
The series, which features an innovative format comprising both team and individual scoring, offered $1m at each of its four events, almost doubling the total prize money for tournaments solely sanctioned by the LET.
More than that, however, the Aramco Team Series has also raised the bar for what sponsors interested in partnering with the tour expect to contribute.
“That relationship was good in growing the schedule but has had a knock-on effect,” says Spaniard Armas.
“The players are competing for $1m and that’s now an expectation from partners who want to get involved. They want to get to that level.
“Growth generates growth. That’s also been a part of the success to a certain extent. In isolation they’re obviously very good events but also I think as an integral part of the tour it’s helped showcase what our players can do and what the LET is about.”
She adds: “The events are played on good venues, the players play for good money, they are very well looked after – that helps them thrive. We’ve seen a lot of talented players come through in Europe in the last few years. Opportunity to play on that stage drives that.
“They’re all televised, there is a lot of impact we’re doing around the tournaments – whether it’s women’s participation, around sustainability or disabled golf – that reach out to a wider audience than we would normally have.”
Aramco Team Series heading back to London
The first event of this year’s Aramco Team Series tees off on Thursday in Bangkok and features stars such as England’s Charley Hull and Thailand’s own Patty Tavatanakit, who won her first major last year aged just 21.
It sees the series expand from four legs to five and visit Asia a year later than planned, the LET having had to switch a scheduled date from Singapore to Sotogrande in Spain in 2021 owing to Covid-19 restrictions.
Next month it returns to London’s Centurion Club, where Hull was joined by compatriot and fellow order of merit winner Georgia Hall in a stellar field last year. As in the series’ inaugural season, further events are due to follow in Spain, New York and Jeddah.
Armas says it could expand further but “it depends on the opportunities that come up and maintaining the value of what has already been built”.
A unique element of the series is that each team of four features one amateur. In London last year, Englishman Andrew Kelsey was part of Olivia Cowan’s winning team. Other amateurs included amputee golfer George Blackshaw.
This year the format has been tweaked slightly. The team scoring will conclude on Friday, with individual scoring finishing on Saturday. Armas says the move is designed to give “more profile to both elements rather than potentially diluting them as it was before”.
The LET has added more mixed male and female events to its schedule in 2022 and will continue to innovate to make itself heard, says Armas.
“We’re always open to look at alternatives as long as they are within what we’d consider a fair golf tournament for the athletes,” she adds.
“One thing that the pandemic taught us is that sometimes we have to do things a little bit differently. We have to be a little more creative to get attention. It doesn’t always have to be 72-hole stroke play.”
Armas says her two years at the helm of the LET have been positive but she is adamant there is much more to be done. Top of her list of priorities is making professional golf a more sustainable career choice for women.
“We’ve already probably doubled the prize fund from where we were in 2019, so it’s going in the right direction,” she says.
“We have a lot more TV hours, we’re looking at all of our digital assets; commercialising the tour better is an opportunity for us to generate more revenue to invest. We’re not going to say it’s easy to sell women’s sports but it’s getting easier.
“I think we’re on a very good trajectory. Our relationship with the LPGA is very strong. That is important for the women’s game that we align to have a cohesive women’s professional environment around the globe.
“We’re not just a women’s version of the men’s game. We’re our own entities, our own culture, the athletes are different, they behave and interact differently, and I think that’s what is helping women’s sports to continue these relationships in the corporate world and finding new partners.”