Women's golf breaking new ground: LPGA commissioner

RANCHO MIRAGE (California) • Golf is getting younger, more global and more female, all to the delight of LPGA commissioner Mike Whan. Rather than cringe at the Asian dominance of the largely US Tour a decade ago, he embraced the global appeal of the game and now revels in the growth during his eight-year reign.

There are 34 official events on the 2017 LPGA Tour schedule, with four new tournaments this year, like Scotland and New Zealand.

More than US$67 million (S$93 million) in total prize money is there for the taking. Six years ago, there were 23 events on the schedule with an overall purse of US$41.5 million.

"It's a borderless game and people over the world are finding it interesting whether they're fans, sponsors or players," said Whan, ahead of the ANA Inspiration, the season's first women's Major.

He said world No. 1 Lydia Ko, a South Korean-born New Zealander who took the LPGA Tour by storm after winning as a 15-year-old, was "a game-changer".

She became the youngest winner on the LPGA Tour, the youngest player to win a Major, and the youngest top-ranked golfer.

"When somebody breaks a barrier, all of a sudden everybody realises that wasn't a barrier. And a bunch of 14-year-olds are standing on tees around the world."

The youth movement is in full swing in women's golf. The average age of winners last year was 22.3. The top-three finishers in the Player of the Year award last year - Thai Ariya Jutanugarn, 21, Ko, and Canadian Brooke Henderson, 19 - were all under 21.

Whan said the trend is fuelled from the introductory levels, and that the growth of interest was the thing he is proudest of.

"When I joined back in 2008 we, together with the USGA (United States Golf Association), were running Girls Golf, a programme where we introduced young girls to the game," he said. "We were introducing about 4,500 girls a year.

"So we set a goal of trying to get to 50,000 girls a year by the time we got to Rio (the 2016 Olympics). When we got to Rio, we were introducing 60,000 girls a year."

He predicted that "by the time we get to Japan (the 2020 Tokyo Olympics) we'll be introducing 100,000 girls a year and right now girls under the age of 18 (are) the fastest-growing segment of golf in America".

REUTERS

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 31, 2017, with the headline 'Women's golf breaking new ground: LPGA commissioner'. Print Edition | Subscribe