Women’s golf, prize money and the fight for equal pay: Is the sport heading in the right direction?
As women’s world No1, Lydia Ko is accustomed to breaking new ground and last month was no exception. At Royal Greens Golf and Country Club in King Abdullah Economic City, the New Zealander became the first Aramco Saudi Ladies International champion to receive equal prize money to the winner of the equivalent men’s tournament, Abraham Ancer.
Golf Saudi’s move to match the $5m prize fund on offer at the men’s PIF Saudi International made the tournaments the most high-profile in the world to offer equal pay. It was also the latest encouraging sign that the sport may be moving towards a more level playing field for its star players of both genders.
“I think this is the direction we’re trending in, not only at this event but all the events,” said Ko, after banking $750,000 from a purse that was bigger than at any regular tournament on the LPGA or Ladies European Tours.
“To have partners that support and believe in women’s golf and the talent that’s out here, it is just great to be a part of that and this history. Hopefully this is a continuous movement on the LET and the LPGA, and for other tours as well.”
For a measure of how prize money in women’s golf has increased, the majors offer ample evidence. In the last five years alone, the purse at the AIG Women’s Open has more than doubled to $7.3m and the winners’ payout to a shade over $1m. Prize money at the Women’s PGA Championship has increased 157 per cent in that time to $9m, while the most lucrative of all, the Women’s US Open, saw its purse rocket from $5.5m to $10m last year.
The sums on offer on the two main tours also signpost the uptick in investment. The total available across all events on the current LET season is €35m (£31m), up from €14m in 2019, the last year before the pandemic threatened to sink the circuit. On the LPGA Tour, meanwhile, the rise has been more modest but still significant, with the total on offer swelling from $70m in 2019 to $101m in 2023.
“In the last five years it really has started to rocket up for the ladies,” former Women’s Open champion and Ryder Cup captain Catriona Matthew told City A.M. last year. “The more money you get, the better players and it just improves everyone.”
Europe closing the gap on LPGA through Saudi investment
The LPGA Tour still leads the way in terms of financial rewards but the LET has closed the gap. It has been bankrolled in no small part by investment from Saudi Arabia, through not only the Saudi Ladies International but also the Aramco Team Series. The string of $1m events debuted on the European circuit in 2021 and is about to begin its third edition in Singapore this week.
Ko is the biggest star due to play at Laguna National Golf Resort Club, where action gets underway on Thursday. She will be trying out for the first time the unique format of the Aramco Team Series, which sees players compete for both individual and team prizes over three days’ play, where she will be joined by fellow major winner Danielle Kang, among others.
“What Aramco has done for the LET has been absolutely phenomenal,” said Georgia Hall, who was runner-up on home soil at the London leg of the series.
“I’ve spoken to a lot of girls on the tour and they say how much they enjoy the events and how much it has helped the tour. Hopefully we continue to have events like this and it shows other sponsors to raise their level and support the tour going forward. Women’s sport is in one of the strongest positions it has ever been in and I think that will continue.”
There is a virtuous cycle at play here. The more sponsors invest in women’s sport, the more the prize money can be increased, the more the players can professionalise and improve, and the more rights-holders can demand from future sponsors. That has been one of the benefits of the Aramco Team Series, LET chief executive Alexandra Armas told City A.M. last year.
“Growth generates more growth and interest,” she said. “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.” Prize fund increases remain one of the tour’s top priorities. “We’re not going to say it’s easier to sell women’s sports but it’s getting easier,” she added.
Golf still some way off equal prize money
Those at the very top of the game are earning sums comparable to other leading female athletes. Minjee Lee ranked 10th in Forbes’s list of highest paid sportswomen last year, with the Australian pocketing an estimated $7.3m, and six more golfers, including Ko, featured in the top 25. Yet other less high-profile women’s players can still struggle to make ends meet.
Equal pay in more golf tournaments is still some way off. Prize money at the men’s Open Championship is approximately double that at the Women’s Open, despite the gap narrowing, while the $3.15m Matt Fitzpatrick trousered for winning the US Open was 75 per cent more than Minjee Lee took home from the women’s equivalent.
And the disparity is even greater away from the majors, as the total tour prize funds illustrate. The €200m on offer across all events on the current men’s European circuit is approximately six times that on the LET, while the PGA Tour will pay out around half a billion dollars at its events this season, around five times the aggregate figure on the LPGA Tour.
“There’s still a way to go,” said Emily Pedersen, a six-time winner on the LET who is also due to tee it up in Singapore this week. “Obviously we want to be at a level with the men but it’s definitely growing and the Aramco Team Series helps. I still think we need more but we have to start somewhere.
“I would definitely like to see the major championships being on the level of the men, I think that would be a great start. So it would be like tennis in the grand slams, where the women have the same prize funds as the men. I think that would help grow the normal events all over.
“We have seen that the major purses are increasing and they’re getting closer so I do believe that hopefully in the next five years we could get to the point where the major championships are at the same level.”
Why golf can learn from tennis
Tennis is the obvious comparison for golf, as an individual sport played on a global circuit that has offered equal prize money to both sexes at all four Grand Slam events for more than 15 years. Naomi Osaka was Forbes’s highest earning sportswoman last year, on more than $51m, and her fellow tennis players took up seven of the top 10 spots.
Yet it took decades from the US Open blazing a trail in 1973 following Billie Jean King’s protests to Wimbledon finally falling into line in 2007. Women’s tennis has also benefited from playing the same tournaments concurrently with their male counterparts, not just at Grand Slams but also other big events, such as this week’s BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells.
Golf is moving in the right direction, with last year’s Scandinavian Mixed event, co-sanctioned by the LET and men’s European circuit, making headlines when Swedish wunderkind Linn Grant showed the strength of the women’s game by blitzing her male and female opponents. Armas has said she believes her tour is “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,” she added. “We’re not here for ourselves to be represented, we’re just spokespeople for the athletes and to make sure that any athlete anywhere can succeed.”