Angel Yin walked off the 18th green at the US Women’s Open at Pine Needles with a USGA pin attached to her shirt where a logo used to be stitched. The pin was a gift from a tournament official, but it underscored the fact that a 23-year-old former Solheim Cup player has no sponsors. Nothing on her hat, her shirt or her bag.
Earlier this year, Yin took the place of defending champion Lydia Ko, who tested positive for COVID-19, at the Aramco Saudi Ladies International. Yin tied for 10th at Royal Greens Golf and Country Club and said she couldn’t pass up another opportunity to work on her game and make money. She compared the quality of the Saudi tournament to a top-tier LPGA event like the Cognizant Founders Cup.
Yin, who admittedly hasn’t watched the news much to read up on the latest in human rights conditions in Saudi Arabia, was heartened by the number of young girls on the range each day for clinics, and what she’d heard from Americans on the ground about strides being made by the Kingdom.
“The way I see it, if they are willing to invest money into women’s golf,” said Yin. “I don’t see how that can hurt.”
In recent years, the laws in Saudi Arabia have changed to allow women to travel abroad and drive a car. However, the male guardian system that’s still in place requires a male relative’s permission to marry, divorce or leave a shelter or prison.
Last month, LIV Golf CEO Greg Norman was seen as downplaying the 2018 killing of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi during media day for the inaugural event in London. In March, Saudi Arabia put to death 81 people in a mass execution.
Many view the massive sums of money being thrown toward golf by the Saudis as brazen sportswashing.
As the golf world grapples with the potential ramifications of the new LIV Golf Series, which kicked off this week in London and resulted in some of the game’s biggest names being suspended by the PGA Tour, many wonder what future plans Golf Saudi might have for the women’s game.
Already entrenched in the Ladies European Tour, Golf Saudi currently backs six events – including the Aramco Team Series – which feature prize money that’s three to four times a typical event on that tour. Players on the LET must compete for Saudi money to have a chance to keep their cards, forcing some to choose between their livelihood and beliefs.
With the LET falling under the LPGA’s umbrella, the tour is already a partner of the Saudi government. In addition, several LPGA players – such as three-time major champion Anna Nordqvist, Carlota Ciganda, Bronte Law and Alison Lee – sport both the Amarco Series and Saudi logos on their hats and shirts.
It all seems to beg the question, what comes next in the women’s game?
Nordqvist wouldn’t comment to Golfweek on her partnership with Golf Saudi. Lee, a former standout at UCLA, won the Aramco Team Series event in Sotogrande by five shots last year for her first professional title.
“To be honest with you, it’s hard to compare what the partnership that Aramco Series has with the women versus what’s going on with the men,” said Lee, “it’s apples and oranges. The women on the LET, they play for almost nothing. It’s very similar purse sizes on the (Epson) Tour.
“A million-dollar purse for them is huge, absolutely huge. It’s almost life-changing for some of those girls when they make a big check at the end of the week. I feel like on the men’s tour, you don’t have guys rooming every week with another player; you don’t have them sharing an Airbnb; you don’t have them sharing a rental car, staying at host families every week.”
For LPGA players, the allure of a rare appearance fee at Aramco events is too good to pass up. Yin said expenses for the year on the LPGA can reach six figures. As Lee said, even those who make the cut at an LPGA with a $1.5 million purse might not earn enough to cover expenses for the week.
“Sponsors are meant to help you with your expenses throughout the year,” said Yin. “When you have that stress lifted off of you, you can play golf more free and not worry about whether or not you can pay rent.”
The LPGA wouldn’t comment for this story, other than to say that the tour has not received an offer from LIV Golf, which is contrary to what CEO Greg Norman told the BBC. Norman said their offer to make a substantial investment similar to the Asian Tour was rejected by both the LPGA and LET. But, he continued, that doesn’t mean it’s over. (LIV golf has already invested $300 million toward the Asian Tour.)
“Just because we offered that up,” said Norman, “we may have a different strategy going forward, so sit back and wait. We’re here for a long, long period of time. We’re here to grow the game golf on a global basis, not just in one specific sector, which is men’s. It’s across the board.”
Lewis, an LPGA board member who told Golfweek late last year that she wouldn’t compete in Saudi Arabia, said the tour is very concerned about what could happen down the road.
“We don’t have all the money and the power that the PGA does to kind of withstand all this,” said Lewis. “If tour players were to leave and start doing what the guys are doing, I don’t know what would happen to our tour. … We’ve kind of kept them at arm’s length.”
Veteran American Marina Alex believes it would be foolish not to think the LPGA is in a vulnerable position.
With 15 events on the LPGA schedule with $2 million purses, it wouldn’t take much for LIV to create a women’s series that could draw away many of the tour’s top stars.
What could the LPGA do to potentially fortify itself against such a potential threat? Alex isn’t sure there’s a good answer to that question. As a women’s organization, it’s even more complex.
“I would just love for girls to have more sponsorship in general,” said Alex, “and it’s unfortunate that that’s not the case. And this is the next option for players, and I can’t fault them for that. If they think it’s going to change the trajectory of their career, how can you deny someone that opportunity?”
Ryann O’Toole looks at the situation on the men’s side and feels this shouldn’t become a battle about where players can compete. While she hasn’t been invited to compete in the Aramco Series, she’d like to participate.
“That’s where it really becomes a fine line,” said O’Toole. “When the LPGA says ‘Hey, you play for the LPGA.’ Well, we as players own the LPGA. At the end of the day, there should be no discrimination about where we should go to play, or what events we choose to play, how we choose to work. The same with the PGA Tour.”
If another women’s tour were created, O’Toole believes it would bring awareness to what many players have been saying: No more $1.5 million purses.
“We don’t want more events,” said O’Toole. “We want bigger purses. We want less weeks on the road.”
Lizette Salas has already competed in Aramco Series events. If a rival tour were to present itself, similar to LIV, Salas said she’d have to see where she is in her career. Many players, she continued, would take that opportunity “regardless of where (the money is) coming from.”
And what if such a tour or series would crush the nearly 75-year-old LPGA?
“Again, it has to kind of be right place, right time for me,” said Salas. “I would just have to analyze where I am in my career, what my core values are and if it’s a good place for me to play … but I’m not taking it off the table right now.”
Top American Nelly Korda, who competed on the Aramco Series last year in New York with sister Jessica, was asked at a pre-tournament press conference at Pine Needles if she’d be interested if someone came along and offered a $10 million purse every week .
“Yeah,” said Korda, “I don’t know if anyone would say no to that.”
Instead of the LPGA?
“Oh, that is something I’ve never thought of,” she continued. “Right now, I have my eyes set on the LPGA, and that’s where I’m thinking.”
Brittany Altomare, 31, has earned $3.1 million over the course of her LPGA career. She has yet to be invited to the Aramco Series but is keeping a close eye on what’s sweating in men’s golf.
“Honestly, I don’t know what I would do if I was offered something,” said Altomare. “It’s hard, because morally I have an issue when everything that goes on there, especially towards women … but as Rory put it, $100 million isn’t going to change his life. But a couple million changes my life completely.”