News & Opinion

Finally, some hope for Ladies European Tour

With the LPGA, R&A and European Tour investing their money and expertise, Europe's female pros will get a long-awaited shot at something often taken for granted in the U.S.: a viable tour

The Ladies European Tour has a future. That’s the good news for those attending LET Qualifying School at La Manga in southern Spain this week.

The bad news? For once, I can’t see any.

The recent merger agreement between the LPGA and LET is perhaps the best news for aspiring European female tour professionals in a long time. It’s too bad that the merger didn’t happen two years ago, when the LET had the chance but balked at the possibility of the LPGA taking over.

Women’s golf enters 2020 with a new pairing as Alexandra Armas (left), the Ladies European Tour’s chief executive officer, joins LPGA commissioner Mike Whan in a trans-Atlantic venture.

On Sept. 11, 2017, in Geneva, Switzerland, LPGA commissioner Mike Whan presented a proposal to the LET board to give the LET a capital investment of $6 million over three years, with the R&A and European Tour chipping into the pot. The LET board declined that offer because it didn’t want to cede control to the LPGA.

Here’s the rub: LET players don’t really care who runs their tour. They just want playing opportunities.

“Obviously they just want to have a place because of the Symetra [Tour] being so over full,” Helen Alfredsson, the LET’s player president, said at the time, referring to the LPGA’s top developmental tour. “They just wanted another place for players to get cards.

“That’s why we thought it wasn’t a viable option.”

Alfredsson and then-acting chief executive Mark Lichtenhein were positive they could turn things around. They haven’t. Indeed, Lichtenhein is no longer with the LET. He was shown the door shortly after Europe won last year’s Solheim Cup.

So, kudos to the LPGA, the R&A and European Tour. They should be applauded for keeping their promise to help the LET.

“Building a strong and sustainable Ladies European Tour is fully consistent with the aims of the R&A Women in Golf Charter,” R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers said. “We support the vision of the LPGA-LET joint venture to create significantly more opportunities for women and girls to pursue their dreams.”

European Tour boss Keith Pelley said: “We look forward to building a strong women’s professional presence through this new collaborative approach.”

Slumbers has made it his mission since coming into office in 2015 to encourage more women and girls to take up golf. Pelley has been keen to see LET and European Tour professionals tee it up together. LET professionals have competed alongside European Tour pros in the GolfSixes team event. Last year, the inaugural Jordan Mixed Open featured players from the European Challenge Tour, European Senior Tour and LET competing in the same tournament.

“I think the merger is great news for the LET,” said England’s Meghan MacLaren, who finished second in the Jordan Mixed Open, and fifth on last year’s LET Order of Merit. “This tour needs investment. Hopefully this merger helps us get that investment and we can start to grow, and get more tournaments with better prize money.”

On Tuesday, the LET announced that Alexandra Armas has been named chief executive officer. Armas had been serving as acting CEO since October. She had been the LET’s executive director in 2008-12. Armas, who played college golf at Wake Forest in 1994-98, brings 20 years of golf-industry experience to the LET. She will report to the LPGA-LET’s joint board, which will be chaired by Whan.

I’ve lost count of the number of chief executives that have walked in and out of LET headquarters. There have been some disastrous choices that have set women’s golf back for too long.

In 2008, the LET had 28 tournaments in 21 countries. By 2017, that number had fallen to 15 events. That 2017 season was a particular low point. Seven events fell off the schedule when the tour was under the jurisdiction of CEO Ivan Khodabakhsh. His golf knowledge? None. He arrived at LET headquarters from the world of boxing. He was chief executive of the World Series of Boxing. No wonder his appointment raised eyebrows.

Khodabakhsh was given his marching orders in the midst of that disastrous 2017 season. The LET has battled back hard ever since, but assembling a schedule hasn’t been easy. The 2020 schedule is expected to be released Friday, the tour said.

It seems strange to be writing about the LET’s previous plight, considering Europe’s victory in last year’s Solheim Cup, arguably the best tournament of 2019. That historic win, the first for Europe since 2013 in the biennial series against the Americans, hides the fact that many LET tournaments are low-budget affairs in which players are out of pocket unless they have a top-10-or-better finish. Many players need part-time jobs just to survive. Once-promising amateurs such as former English Amateur champion Lucy Williams and Stanford alumna Sally Watson have quit to pursue other careers because they couldn’t make enough money.

No wonder Europe’s top stars play full time in the United States. That perhaps won’t change. The LET probably always will be a feeder circuit for the LPGA, but hopefully this merger will produce enough good tournaments to sustain those who dream of one day making it to the LPGA, and give established LET stars the chance to return to their home circuit more often.

“Adding leadership from the LPGA, the R&A and the European Tour to our newly formed board is a recipe for success,” LET board chair Marta Figueras-Dotti said. “I can’t wait to get started.”

Ditto for LET members.