Other sports have been defined by a dominant player or rivalry, but does the LPGA need to develop a star to stand out from the crowd?
NEWTOWN SQUARE, Pa. – Does the LPGA need a star to create the necessary buzz for the women’s tour to continue to prosper?
Every sport has its go-to athlete. In basketball, it’s LeBron James, who followed the late Kobe Bryant after the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird era and the otherworldly Michael Jordan. Baseball had Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Nolan Ryan. In football, Tom Brady succeeded the reigns of quarterbacks Joe Montana and Joe Namath.
Each sport has been defined by an era that spotlighted a go-to performer. On the PGA Tour, think Tiger Woods, who followed Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer.
Many times, a dominant player transcends the sport and helps expand interest beyond the traditional fan base.
In the Olympics, held every four years, an athlete tends to emerge and shift attention to his or her sport, perhaps only temporarily. Swimming’s Mark Spitz, boxing’s Muhammad Ali, speed skating’s Bonnie Blair and track’s Jackie Joyner-Kersee are only a few of many such transcendent performers.
Women’s golf could look for such examples as in women’s tennis, with its Chris Evert-Martina Navratilova rivalry yielding to Steffi Graf-Monica Seles and eventually the Williams sisters, Serena and Venus.
The LPGA has had its share of breakout performers over the years, dating to the days of Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Kathy Whitworth and Mickey Wright, before Nancy Lopez, Annika Sorenstam, Karrie Webb and Lorena Ochoa.
In every instance, those examples are incomplete. Yet, with sports becoming so dependent on television, whether it be by traditional network, cable or streaming, the need to identify stars and promote them has become increasingly important for the health of the sport and its league.
When Sweden’s Pernilla Lindberg won the 2018 ANA Inspiration for her first LPGA title, the major championship resonated for one or two weeks, but Lindberg hasn’t won since.
Germany’s Sophia Popov, likewise a non-winner before the recent Women’s British Open, pulled off an unexpected victory, but she would need to follow it in some meaningful way to drive interest in women’s golf.
It’s not easy nor is it the job of any one player to carry the tour similar to how Woods drove interest in the PGA Tour for more than two decades, beginning in the late 1990s. Yet, if such a marquee player can create that buzz, then the sport benefits.
But is it necessary?
“We've had a great run of really top players,” England’s Laura Davies said of women’s golf. “Annika obviously stood out; Webby stood out; Lorena stood out for their run, and before that there were more players, but right now there's so many good players at the same time all competing at the very top level.
“It would be very hard for any of them to distance themselves,” said Davies, a four-time major champion and 2015 inductee into the World Golf Hall of Fame. “I know some get on a little run, win maybe a couple of majors in a short space of time and get that buffer at the top of the world rankings, but I just think there's too many good ones now for anyone to dominate. It's like the men. Now, Tiger is not dominating; it changes a lot now, and I just think that there's so many more players that contend week in, week out, so it's tough.”
Davies went on to say that it would be nice for the LPGA to have such a marquee player but that the tour features many marquee players, and that's good for the game.
“I don't think you have to hang your hat on any one player,” Davies said. “We've got lots of them from lots of different countries, as well. So, I don't think it's a bad thing at all.”
Davies’ reasoning is sound, but the women of the LPGA are far behind the men in regards to prize money and attention.
It doesn’t matter how well any LPGA player competes. Generating interest is difficult in a saturated sports landscape, but without a star attraction, it becomes even more difficult to stand out.
But even should a transcendent star emerge on the LPGA, Stacy Lewis doesn’t think the women ever will reach a level of parity with the men similar to tennis.
“For that to happen, the men's purses would have to go down and ours would have to continue to go up,” said Lewis, 35, whose 13 LPGA victories include two major titles. “I don't know if we ever get to that point, but I think we have to do better than where we're at.”
Lewis talked about last week’s victory by Sergio Garcia at the PGA Tour’s Sanderson Farms Championship. Garcia took home nearly $1.2 million, compared with the total purse at the ShopRite LPGA Classic, which was $1.3 million.
Lewis recognizes that the LPGA will not compete each week with the purses on the PGA Tour, but she said the major championships can help narrow the gap. This week’s KPMG Women’s PGA will offer $4.3 million, roughly the average of the LPGA's four major events this year.
“It's more where our majors are our big weeks,” she said. “You kind of get like tennis, women's tennis, where their major purses are very similar to the guys', but then maybe their week-to-week stuff maybe isn't quite the same. And I would be OK with that. As long as we can get on these big stages four or five times a year, draw people that aren't normally, I think we're making progress.”
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