Evanson: The LPGA Tour is great, but where is it headed?
Women's golf and the LPGA Tour are in a great place, but what's to come may be a mystery.
The AmazingCre Portland Classic at Columbia Edgewater Country Club wasn't just the first of what will likely be many wins for former Stanford star Andrea Lee, it was a week of discovery for this columnist checking the temperature of a tour that for decades has been looking for a seat at golf's premier table.
Gone is the stigma of inferiority built on a foundation of good but not eye-popping talent, and in its wake has come a wave of athletes playing a game more closely tied to their male professional peers than the local club champions to whom they're often compared.
While the past decade has brought real athleticism to the PGA Tour by way of fitness and technology, that same current of momentum is washing over what was once a profoundly passive women's professional approach and replaced it with a controlled aggression more akin to their male counterparts.
That's not a knock on the professionals for whom today's players owe much gratitude, but an ode to the existing ones who've taken it to another level.
Yesteryear had their cast of characters like Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Patty Berg, and Mickey Wright. Later, there were players like Kathy Whitworth, Nancy Lopez and Julie Inkster who captured the game's attention. Joanne Carner and Laura Davies brought a brute strength to women's golf, and of course Annika Sorenstam took it all to another level.
But wander the grounds of today's LPGA events like the one in Portland this past weekend, and you'll see both the type of power and precision everyday golfers can't help but appreciate.
The game is hard. Golfers know that.
But what's always impressed the recreational player who watches from his couch at home is not seeing what they can do with a ball and club, but rather what they can't.
The average golfer can't hit the ball 260 yards. Sixty LPGA Tour players average it, while nearly 20 exceed 270.
That same average player is lucky to hit half of his/her fairways, while the LPGA Tour's most accurate drivers hit more than 80% and more than 100 exceed 70%.
And putting, more than 20 LPGA players exceed the PGA Tour average in putts per green in regulation, so their work with the flatstick shouldn't be frowned upon either.
Additionally, the tour and its players seem to open their arms to the fans that make it all possible, rubbing shoulders with patrons outside the ropes while PGA Tour stars typically live entirely within them.
Little separates the women stars from their adoring public, and they seem to enjoy it. In a way, viewing themselves not on a separate level from the fans, but on the same one golfers of all levels inhabit. It's not only a refreshing environment, but an inviting one for people who hit the same sized ball with the same clubs — just not nearly as well.
LIV Golf has driven a wedge into the men's professional game this year. The money they've dangled in front of the world's elite talent has proven to many to be the forbidden fruit, and that "many" have happily bitten into it. While at this time, LIV offers no women's option, their CEO — Greg Norman — has hinted that an alternative ladies circuit could too be on the horizon, and with few LPGA Tour players living the same life and enjoying the same spoils as their PGA Tour counterparts, it could be ripe for the picking for an organization salivating at any opportunity to disrupt.
Former LPGA Tour star and current television personality Morgan Pressel said recently that she fears what a LIV-esque invasion could do to the LPGA Tour.
"I don't know that the LPGA Tour can survive what the PGA Tour is going through right now."
LIV is making the rich richer when it comes to men's professional golf, but a major increase in dollars would be a financial game-changer for a large segment of women's professionals who are, in many cases, just trying to make ends meet. That would be a problem for the LPGA Tour, especially as their product continues to improve and its economic viability improves with it.
The tour is ripe with young talent.
Minjee Lee, Lydia Ko and Brooke Henderson sit atop the season standings, and relative newcomer Jennifer Kupcho and "veteran" Lexi Thompson aren't far behind. Then there's Nelly Korda, who was the world's top-ranked player before missing four months this year due to a blood clot but has quickly re-emerged as on of the game's best upon her return.
All are at or under the age of 27, positioning the tour and the women's game for a dramatic climb in popularity as the talent and skill level continue to improve.
And lest we forget Andrea Lee, this past week's champion, whose resume is fraught with the type of success befitting a future tour star; who at the same time knows how challenging it is to win against the world's greatest players.
"I realized it is really difficult to win out here," Lee said after her win in Portland. "Everyone is such a great player. I think every single player out here has the ability to win on the LPGA Tour."
I'm sure that won't change, but hopefully neither will where they're doing it. Golf — and especially the LPGA Tour — has earned it.
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