HSBC Women's World Championship 2019

Asia must wait for first Major

LPGA commissioner Michael Whan is pleased with the growing number of young girls playing golf around the world.
LPGA commissioner Michael Whan is pleased with the growing number of young girls playing golf around the world.ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

LPGA chief Whan cites history and financial commitments as factors behind host status

With the heavy presence of Asian players on the LPGA Tour and the growing number of tournaments in the region, Thailand's world No. 1 Ariya Jutanugarn feels that it's time for Asia to have its own Major.

There's also the small fact that eight of the 13 female golfers who have been crowned No. 1 since the world rankings were introduced in 2006 are Asians.

But, Michelle Wie, the defending champion of this week's HSBC Women's World Championship, disagrees with Ariya as adding a sixth Major would "diminish the royalty of having a Major".

Currently, there are five Majors in the women's game - the ANA Inspiration, the US Women's Open, Women's PGA Championship, the Women's British Open and The Evian Championship, which became the fifth Major in 2013.

LPGA commissioner Michael Whan did not rule out the possibility of having a Major in Asia one day, but cited the key factors that have to be taken into consideration.

He drew a comparison between some of the Asian events, like the HSBC Women's World Championship which has seen multiple short-term extensions since its inception in 2008, with some of the Majors.

The 53-year-old told The Straits Times: "There's certainly the ability to hold a Major in Asia, but we just don't have a Major availability, at least on my schedule. I can give you a list of six or seven tournaments that have proven they are capable of taking it up that notch.

"But it is a monster financial commitment. Majors have significant long-term agreements. They are not three-and five-year deals...

"Evian was a regular tournament for 19 years before they became a Major... it had a 30-year plan.

"Majors have roots, they have to be with you for 30, 40, 50 years. First, I have to have someone in Asia to tell me they have a 30-year vision and a 30-year plan and I have to have a Major to give them. I currently have neither of those two things."

Whan, however, assured that the LPGA will continue with its global outreach despite the lack of an official Major in Asia.

When he took over the LPGA in 2010, the Tour had just 24 events amid the economic downturn. This year, there will be 33 events with a combined prize purse of US$70.55 million (S$95.1 million), up from US$65.35 million last year.

In the past decade, the LPGA Tour has expanded its reach from 190 hours of television time a year in 25 countries to 500 hours in 175 countries.

In a bid to make the LPGA Tour a global product, Whan and his team studied and took the lead from the National Basketball Association, the English Premier League and the Olympics.

"The Olympics build this form where the best in the world are striving to get to, no matter where they come from. And, when they get there, the Olympics really celebrate the fact that they come from all over the world," he said.

"Yet, the Olympics really feel like a hometown event, and they let the world eavesdrop. They don't make it about the world, they make it about the hometown.

"When we are in Singapore, we have to embrace Singapore and let the rest of the world eavesdrop on Singapore.

"A lot of sports miss that, they really want to be global but they didn't want to be local. We try to be local and show the rest of the world these markets."

And Whan is not resting on his laurels as he introduced three new formats in this year's line-up.

The season-opening Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions in Florida last month featured celebrities competing alongside winners from the past two seasons, while the Vic Open earlier this month saw 156 men and 156 women playing for equal but separate prize money in Australia.

LONG HISTORY

Majors are roots, they have to be with you for 30, 40, 50 years... I have to have someone in Asia to tell me they have a 30-year vision.

MICHAEL WHAN, LPGA boss, outlining the long runway a Major requires.

There is also The Dow Great Lakes Bay Invitational in July, a 72-hole two-player team competition in Michigan.

Whan said: "Events and prize money and TV are the stuff that the media write about and what I hear on talk shows. I get it, but I feel like that is the result of the more important stuff.

"The real difference is how many young girls are playing this game. We started going to Malaysia and you didn't see women playing golf at the LPGA level. Now, 80 per cent of the gallery is women, and the same for Thailand.

"When I joined in 2010, youth golf in the US looked just like adult golf - 15 per cent girls, 85 per cent boys. Today, youth golf is 33 per cent girls and it will be 50-50 in the next 10 years.

"The most important thing is we are changing the number of girls who play the game and that is going to change the face of this game worldwide. It was never going to be a great sport if it were a male-only sport. And that has really changed in the last 10 years."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 28, 2019, with the headline 'Asia must wait for first Major'. Print Edition | Subscribe