By Andrew Both
(Reuters) – The LPGA season kicks off on Thursday for a season that will comprise 34 events and distribute some $70 million (54.5 million pounds) in prize money, a record amount for the circuit although it is still barely one-fifth on offer on the PGA Tour.
The discrepancy roughly parallels the difference in television ratings in the United States between the tours, according to LPGA commissioner Mike Whan, with the women mainly shown on the smaller audience Golf Channel while the men’s circuit is broadcast on free-to-air network television.
“The difference in purses is the difference in total viewership,” Whan told Reuters in a television interview ahead of the Tournament of Champions season opener that will be held in Florida.
“There is a real business reason. It’s based on real data. I understand it. I was a sponsor before a commissioner.
“It doesn’t mean I like it, doesn’t mean it’s the end of the road. Seven or eight years ago it wouldn’t have been one fifth. We’re up 80 percent in purses since 2010.”
The LPGA’s U.S.-based global circuit will consist of 21 tournaments in North America, nine in Asia/Australia and four in Europe in 2019, a ratio with which Whan said he was comfortable.
With 19 vacant weekends on the schedule, however, there is plenty of room for the LPGA to grow and Whan sees one gaping hole that he would love to plug with a new tournament or two.
“We’ve got a pretty significant hole in the (U.S.) north-east between New York and Boston,” he said while on a promotional visit to New York.
“In a perfect world we’d get up here once or twice a year, but at end of the day I have to play were my cheque writers’ tell me.”
His longer-term vision also includes a joint event with the PGA Tour, which is close to fruition.
“Two years ago we created a joint task force with PGA Tour,” he said. “We’re kicking around a lot of ideas. I think you should expect to see something in the next year.”
Golf fans who enjoy watching both players will not have to wait that long, however, because next month’s Victorian Open in Australia will feature men and women playing the same course for the same purse although it will be separate competitions with alternating tee times and different tees.
While the event is not new, it will be the first time it falls under the LPGA umbrella, part of a four-event Australia-Asia swing.
The season will feature five designated major championships, with one big change as the Evian Championship in France moves to a July 25-28 timeslot after an ill-fated six-year stretch in September, when it was often plagued by poor weather.
The game’s premier team event, the Solheim Cup, in which the U.S. will defend against Europe at Gleneagles in Scotland will be the main feature of the calendar this September.
The LPGA season will conclude as usual with the CME Group Tour Championship in Naples, Florida in November, where the purse has been doubled to $5 million and includes a women’s record $1.5 million to the winner.
The prize money increase more than makes up for the scrapping of the bonus the winner of the Race to the CME Globe points race used to receive.
The PGA Tour has also simplified its FedExCup points race, instituting a staggered start for the Tour Championship in which the cup points leader will begin the event at 10 under par, a 10-shot headstart over the bottom five qualifiers.
Both tours have made the change to simplify the situation for players — and spectators — who often did not know where they stood in the points race.
Whan, however, did not want to go the PGA Tour route of starting the final event with players on different scores.
“We’re going to treat the 60 players in our final event the same way,” he said.
“This way everybody understands you win, you win.”
(Editing by Greg Stutchbury)