Angel Yin exited the 18th green at the US Women’s Open in Pine Needles with a USGA pin pinned to her shirt where a logo used to be sewn. The pin was a gift from a tournament official but underscores the fact that a 23-year-old former Solheim Cup player has no sponsors. Nothing on her hat, shirt, or bag.
Earlier this year, Yin took the place of defending champion Lydia Ko, who tested positive for COVID-19, at Aramco Saudi Ladies International. Yin finished 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 premier LPGA event like the Cognizant Founders Cup.
Yin, who admittedly hasn’t watched much news to catch up on the latest human rights conditions in Saudi Arabia, was heartened by the number of young girls who are on the firing range for clinics each day and by what she’s hearing from Americans had the ground about the advances being made by the kingdom.
“The way I see it, if they’re willing to put money into women’s golf,” Yin said. “I don’t see how that can harm.”
In recent years, laws in Saudi Arabia have changed to allow women to travel abroad and drive. However, the male guardianship system still in place requires permission from a male relative in order 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 killed 81 people in a mass execution.
Many consider the massive sums of money the Saudis are throwing into the Gulf as brazen sports laundry.
As the golfing world grapples with the potential impact of the new LIV Golf Series, which kicked off in London this week and has resulted in some of the game’s biggest names being suspended from the PGA Tour, many are wondering about Golf Saudi’s future plans for them could women’s game.
Already firmly established in the Ladies European Tour, Golf Saudi currently supports six events – including the Aramco Team Series – with prize money three to four times that of a typical event on that tour. Players on the LET must fight for Saudi money to stand a chance of keeping their cards, forcing some to choose between their livelihood and their faith.
As the LET falls under the LPGA umbrella, the tour is already a partner of the Saudi government. Additionally, several LPGA players – such as three-time Major champion Anna Nordqvist, Carlota Ciganda, Bronte Law and Alison Lee – wear both the Amarco series and the Saudi logo on their hats and shirts.
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Nordqvist declined to comment golf week about their partnership with Gulf Saudi. Lee, a former UCLA standout, won the Aramco Team Series event in Sotogrande last year by a five-shot margin and claimed her first professional title.
“To be honest, it’s hard to compare what’s going on with Aramco Series’ partnership with the women versus what’s going on with the men,” Lee said, “it’s a matter of apples and oranges. The women in the LET play almost for free. It’s very similar handbag sizes on the (Epson) tour.
“A million dollar purse for them is huge, absolutely huge. For some of these girls, having a big check at the end of the week is almost life-changing. I feel like guys don’t sleep with a different player every week on the men’s tour; they don’t share an Airbnb; You don’t have to share a rental car and stay with host families every week.”
For LPGA players, the allure of a rare entry fee at Aramco events is too good to pass up. Yin said spending for the year at the LPGA could reach six figures. As Lee said, even those who make the cut at an LPGA with a $1.5 million purse may not make enough to cover the week’s expenses.
“Sponsors are meant to help you with your expenses throughout the year,” Yin said. “Once you’ve taken that stress off you can play golf more freely and not have to worry about whether or not you can pay rent.”
The LPGA declined to comment on this story, other than to say the tour did not receive an offer from LIV Golf, contrary to what CEO Greg Norman told the BBC. Norman said their offer to make a significant investment similar to the Asian tour was turned down by both the LPGA and LET. But, he continued, that doesn’t mean it’s over. (LIV Golf has already invested $300 million in the Asian Tour.)
“Just because we offered that,” Norman said, “we might have a different strategy going forward, so sit back and wait. We’ve been here for a long, long time. We are here to promote the game of golf worldwide, not just in one particular sector, which is men’s. It’s across the board.”
Lewis, an LPGA board member who narrated it golf week Late last year that she would not be competing in Saudi Arabia, the tour said she was very concerned about what might happen later.
“We don’t have all the money and power that the PGA has to withstand all of this,” Lewis said. “If tour players left and started doing what the guys are doing, I don’t know what would happen to our tour. … We kind of kept them at a distance.”
Veteran American Marina Alex thinks it’s foolish not to believe that the LPGA is in a vulnerable position.
With 15 events on the LPGA calendar with $2 million in prize money, it wouldn’t take much for LIV to create a women’s series that could attract many of the tour’s top stars.
What could the LPGA do to possibly protect itself against such a potential threat? Alex isn’t sure there is a good answer to this question. As a women’s organization, it’s even more complex.
“I would just love it if girls got more sponsorships in general,” Alex said, “and it’s unfortunate that’s not the case. And that’s the next option for players, and I can’t fault them for that. If you think it will change your career, how can you deny someone that opportunity?”
Looking at the situation on the men’s side, Ryann O’Toole feels this shouldn’t be a battle over where players can compete. Although she was not invited to participate in the Aramco series, she would like to participate.
“That’s where it really becomes a fine line,” O’Toole said. “When the LPGA says, ‘Hey, you play for the LPGA.’ Well, we as gamers own the LPGA. Ultimately, there should be no discrimination about where we should play, what events we play, or how we work. The same goes for the PGA Tour.”
If another tour were created for women, O’Toole believes it would raise awareness of what many players have been saying: no more $1.5 million purses.
“We don’t want any more events,” O’Toole said. “We want bigger wallets. We want to be on the road for fewer weeks.”
Lizette Salas has competed in Aramco Series events. If a competing tour similar to LIV presented itself, Salas said she would have to see where she was in her career. Many players, she continued, would take advantage of this opportunity “regardless of where (the money) comes from.”
And what if such a tour or series crushed the nearly 75-year-old LPGA?
“Again, it kind of has to be the right place and time for me,” Salas said. “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 in the Aramco series in New York last year with sister Jessica, was asked at a pre-tournament press conference at Pine Needles if she’d be interested in someone coming by and $10 million every week would offer .
“Yeah,” Korda said, “I don’t know if anyone would say no.”
Instead of the LPGA?
“Oh, I never thought of that,” she continued. “Right now I have my eyes on the LPGA and that’s what I’m thinking about.”
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 happening in men’s golf.
“Honestly, I don’t know what I would do if I was offered anything,” Altomare said. “It’s hard because morally I have a problem with everything that’s going on there, especially towards women … but as Rory put it, $100 million isn’t going to change his life. But a few million changes my life completely.”