While it might have shocked many to hear LPGA commissioner Mollie Marcoux Samaan say she would talk to LIV Golf, Annika Sorenstam thought it was the right call. As did Juli Inkster.
These LPGA legends understand one crucial point: If Greg Norman and LIV Golf aim to create a rival tour that’s anything like what they’ve done in the men’s game, it would wreck the LPGA, the longest continuous-running professional women’s sports organization in the United States.
“I think if Norman does this,” said Inkster, “it’s going to totally ruin the LPGA, because I think most of the girls would go, just because the money is a game-changer.”
As the best in the women’s game gather at historic Muirfield for the first time this week, they’ll compete for a purse of $6.8 million. This season, the LPGA will play for a total of $97 million, roughly one-fifth the amount of money as the PGA Tour. Last week, LIV Golf announced its players will compete for $405 million in 2023 across 14 events.
With a schedule made entirely of limited-field, no-cut tournaments, even a fraction of that would be enough to lure plenty of big-name LPGA players to a LIV women’s league. Not to mention the prospect of signing bonuses.
“I hope we survive it,” said former No. 1 Stacy Lewis. “I’m scared for this tour. I’m scared to lose all the opportunities that we’ve created.”
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Sorenstam believes it’s the job of the commissioner to listen to potential opportunities, and that includes LIV. Because the LPGA is part of a 50-50 joint business venture with the Ladies European Tour, there already exists a partnership with the Saudi-backed Aramco Series, which feature prize money that’s three to four times a typical event on that tour, totaling $6 million.
Sorenstam, a 10-time major winner who won 72 times on the LPGA, looks at the rival league that has formed in the men’s game and sees the need for a more LPGA-fitted version.
“If it’s the money that they have on the LIV, you know they’re going to crush the LPGA,” said Sorenstam. “Hopefully they have the intention of growing the game and working together with the LPGA.
“To crush the LPGA doesn’t do anybody good, history-wise, future-wise, sustainability-wise. There’s so much negativity around this. I think that we need to somehow find a way to get a positive image with all this, if you know what I mean.”
It’s not a stretch to imagine that LPGA being forced to make a decision between going into business with the Saudis in a big way – or complete destruction.
While there have been calls to conduct talks with LIV officials, it’s not clear exactly what the talking points might be – there are many ways this all could shake out. An independent rival tour that poached dozens of top players would cripple the LPGA. Instead, a series of Saudi-backed official LPGA events is one possible way the two could work together, much like the Aramco Team Series on the LET. It’s impossible to know what LIV wants, of course, without having a conversation.
What seems most unlikely, however, is that top players will band together to stiff-arm the Saudis on principle.
“I think you have a handful that feels the same way as me,” said Lewis. “I think you have a majority that would ask, ‘What’s the number?’
“Should we talk to them? Absolutely. Ultimately, I think we have to find a way to co-exist.”
Critics of LIV often to the wide-ranging human rights abuses Saudi Arabia has been accused of, including politically motivated killings, torture, forced disappearances and inhuman treatment of prisoners. Members of the royal family and Saudi government were accused of involvement in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist.
How can a women’s organization reconcile doing business with a regime that has such a horrendous record of human rights abuses, especially toward women?
“I think that’s maybe one of the reasons we should partner,” said Sorenstam, “to be able to make a difference.”
Marcoux Samaan told Golfweek last week that she has not yet had a conversation with LIV, and that it’s too early to speculate on potential outcomes or options.
“We’ve been breaking down barriers for a long time,” Marcoux Samaan said. “I think we always fall back on our values and our goals before making any decision.”
A voluntary state of the tour meeting was held last month at the Dow Great Bay Lakes Invitational to discuss the potential threat of LIV, among other things, and only a couple dozen players attended.
Nancy Lopez has always worried about the LPGA. As a rookie in 1978, she was convinced the LPGA would close the pay gap. She’s still baffled by the fact that such a large chasm continues to exist between the tours and she is even more confused by what could be on the horizon.
“I’m such a loyal person,” said Lopez when asked what she might have done in her prime if faced with the possibility of piles of cash.
“I would be hard to say ‘No, I wouldn’t want the money,’ but God it would be really hard to leave the LPGA. It would just eat me up.”
Lopez thought she would retire from the LPGA after she had her first daughter, Ashley, but the competitive fire was still there, and she needed the money.
“The money I made was good,” said Lopez, “but it wasn’t going to keep me until I got to 93 and needed to pay somebody to take care of me someday.”
While the PGA Tour has the best retirement plan in sports, the LPGA’s pension guarantees that most will need a second career.
As so many PGA Tour players talk about going to LIV to create generational wealth, consider what it would mean to an LPGA player to play five more years and then retire to start a family without having to worry about money.
For some, continuing to chase major titles and Hall of Fame points pales in comparison to children and financial security.
Saudi activist Omaima Al Najjar said there’s no denying the fact that conditions have improved for women in recent years, though she maintains that the right to drive and the right to travel are basic fundamental rights and not a sign of substantial progress.
“It’s important to remind the women who are participating in this tour,” said Al Najjar, “that the Saudi women activists who made those changes happen are still on trial, being prosecuted, banned from activism and banned from traveling.”
Al Najjar, now a surgical doctor living in Ireland, was a prominent blogger who took part in the right to drive campaign in Saudi and fled when she felt the risks were too great. It’s still too dangerous for her to return now.
Al Najjar is head of campaigns for ALQST for Human Rights, documenting conditions in prisons and advocating for the release of activists.
Al Najjar wants players to speak out not only about the activists, but the conditions of many migrant workers in Saudi Arabia. Women come from developing countries to work in the kingdom as maids and often have their passports confiscated as they are made to work seven days a week with no set schedule, “which is a sort of slavery,” Al Najjar said.
Meanwhile, Saudi-born women are fleeing the country, she continued, despite recent reforms because there are no safe houses in the kingdom for victims of domestic violence.
“There’s an issue of killing women in Saudi,” said Al Najjar, “and a lot of husbands kill their wives or a lot of fathers kill their daughters and the Saudi authorities do not do much about it.”
These are the issues Al Najjar hopes that LPGA players who compete in Saudi Arabia will speak out against, even it means financial loss.
“It’s important that they make such a statement,” she said, “and stand with Saudi women.”
Few have chronicled the LPGA as diligently and passionately as Ron Sirak, the 2015 recipient of the PGA Lifetime Award in Journalism. For those who question how LIV Golf is any different from the LET’s Aramco Series or players sporting the logos of Golf Saudi on their hats and shirts, Sirak said it’s important to recognize the difference between sponsoring a tournament and owning a tour. Much like there’s a difference in sponsoring a player and owning a player.
“I think that’s a difficult situation for the LPGA to figure out what their relationship would be with the people who want to bankroll them,” said Sirak. “Would they be being supported by the tour and the LPGA still be an autonomous entity? Or would they be owned by the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia?”
Given the Saudis’ seemingly endless supply of money and little regard for market value – this seems to be more about power and image – the LPGA is in no position to throw money at a potential threat, and therefore has little leverage.
LPGA veteran Ryann O’Toole believes the PGA Tour made a mistake in not engaging with LIV Golf. If what Norman says is true, and LIV plans to build a women’s league, O’Toole would like to see the LPGA work with them so that players don’t have to choose.
“I think that it would be a great opportunity to utilize, like, the possibility that there could be some better financial opportunities,” said O’Toole, “and that we come together as two organizations, versus having two separate organizations.”
Whatever happens, it’s important that Marcoux Samaan maintains a model that’s sustainable, even if the Saudis decide to suddenly pull out of the golf business. One that, even if the LPGA took a financial hit, it would still survive.
Imagine if the Saudis – a country that’s widely reported to have a gender pay gap of 49 percent – became the first to pay elite male and female professional golfers equally. Or even came close.
“Financially, it is life-changing money,” said Maria Fassi, whose agency, GSE, has a number of LIV clients including Bryson DeChambeau, Sergio Garcia, Louis Oosthuizen, Paula Casey, Jason Kokrak, Brendan Grace, Abraham Ancer and Carlos Ortiz .
“Whatever they come and offer me, $10 million, $20 million, 15, 7, whatever it is, it is money 99 percent of the girls out here aren’t seeing.”
And to many, where the money comes from, ultimately might not matter.