GALLOWAY, N.J. — Greg Norman tantalized the best women golfers in the world with a big-bucks flicker of hope that, they too — possibly anyone from a former world No. 1 like Nelly Korda to Stanford phenom Rose Zhang — could eventually revel in the spoils offered by Saudi-backed LIV Golf.
Norman, the commissioner of LIV Golf, insisted in April the upstart golf league propped by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund would consider adding a women’s tour.
“I have personally had discussions with individual LPGA Tour players, Ladies European Tour. They love what our product is showcasing,” Norman said. “They ask all the time, ‘How can we get involved?’ We’d love to see a LIV ladies series.”
Norman, who also boasted of more major men’s players to join the fledging series that failed to materialize, never named any women he met with to discuss LIV. But if any kind of offer ever comes that could inject a financial boon to the tour, the LPGA would at least be willing to listen, despite the Saudi’s troubling history when it comes to women’s rights.
Some women on the LPGA Tour currently play on the Ladies European Tour — which does receive Saudi funding — but there is not the distain and animosity between LET and the LPGA that had existed between the PGA and LIV Golf.
The PGA Tour partnership with Saudi Arabia’s enormous wealth fund essentially left out the LPGA in the foreseeable future of any chance of at least considering the idea to defect and join a rival league that paid signing bonuses of $100 million or more to poach players from the PGA Tour.(asterisk)(asterisk)
While bonuses likely never would have soared that high — again, there was never any firm plan a women’s version of LIV was on the table — history showed the Saudi money surely would have been considerably more massive than any payout offered by the LPGA Tour.
“It’s definitely something I would look at,” 2010 U.S. Women’s Open champion Paula Creamer said Thursday. “I don’t know all the details about that. You have to weigh your options with everything these days.”
PGA players were blindsided this week by the unfathomable announcement. The LPGA field was even more unsure how the deal could affect them, if at all.
“Who knows what the next curve ball is,” American golfer Amy Olson said.
The Saudi overtures into the women’s game aren’t necessarily surprising given that the country is already tethered to the sport via its “Vision 2030” initiative aimed to diversify and reduce its dependence on oil.
The kingdom’s investments in sports and entertainment in recent years not only funded LIV Golf, it currently sponsors six events on the Ladies European Tour. The Aramco Team Series began in 2020 — two years before LIV was launched — and featured team and individual winners. Among the past champions are Korda and Lexi Thompson, two of the biggest draws on the LPGA Tour, while Lydia Ko won the Aramco Saudi Ladies International this year.
The LPGA Tour has joint ownership of the LET. State-run oil giant Saudi Aramco reported net profits of $161 billion in 2022 off higher crude oil prices, claiming the highest-ever recorded annual profit by a publicly listed company. It’s pockets are deep enough to spread the wealth into women’s golf.
The Saudi Ladies International had a $5 million purse this year — only the LPGA majors and its year-end Tour Championship pay more. The Aramco Team Series typically has a $500,000 prize fund — miniscule for LPGA Tour standards, nearly double most purses on the LET. The more opportunities abound to fatten the bank account, the greater the allure to play around the world.
No matter who may be pulling the strings.
“I’m a global player,” Creamer said ahead of this weekend’s LPGA Classic. “I have global sponsors. I travel all over the world for my partners.”
The LPGA has refused to shut the door on any opportunities that would pump needed cash into the game. While LIV was formed as a direct competitor to the PGA Tour and designed in part to reinvent the structure of professional golf, Saudis in the women’s game serve as simply a title sponsor that pays a nice purse.
“We remain focused on growing the LPGA, continuing to work with the top partners in the world to provide the best opportunity for our membership and to make sure that everything we do continues to allow us to inspire, elevate and advance opportunities for girls and women, on and off the golf course,” LPGA Commissioner Mollie Marcoux Samaan said.
While the defections to LIV of Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and 2023 PGA champion Brooks Koepka’s brought fierce criticism for the ethical questions raised with their Saudi involvement, the LET players have largely escaped backlash for playing tournaments in Saudi Arabia.
When Ko won the Aramco Saudi Ladies International in February at the Royal Greens Golf and Country Club in the kingdom, the event was largely ignored. She took home a $750,000 check largely without the accusations of greed and hypocrisy that has followed the men.
“Women’s sports is regrettably ignored in general, so they wouldn’t receive that criticism,” said Michael Serazio, an author on sports culture and associate professor at Boston University. “It never really let up on Mickelson and some of the other guys that took the money to play in LIV. They continued to weather the criticism and the disdain did not wear off.”
Anna Nordqvist, who won three LPGA majors, ended an endorsement deal with Aramco earlier this year because of the ” incredible amount of hatred and mean comments from people who don’t even know me.”
The party line for some corporations and athletes is to at least offer an excuse that they want to inspire change or modernize the Middle Eastern country. The true enticement is money.
The active career money leaders on the LPGA Tour have made as much as, say, Mets ace Max Scherzer can make in a handful of starts.
The LPGA’s 33 official events this year will have a combined $101.4 million in purses, a high for the tour and an increase of about 18% over what was planned for this season and more than doubling what was paid out on the tour just a decade ago.
PGA Tour prize money this year is about $450 million over 47 events while LIV Golf offered $405 million in 14 men’s events in 2023.
But there is another side of the ledger that can’t be ignored.
Even with modest modern reforms of late often posited as propaganda in the gender-segregated country, Saudi Arabia is still widely decried for repressing women’s rights.
Consider, laws around guardianship still limit women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. The worst laws require women to have a male guardian’s consent regarding most aspects of their life including marriage. The resentment against American dealings with the Saudis raged as the country was accused of taking part in sportswashing, an attempt by Saudi Arabia to shift focus away from its human rights abuses, such as the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Like it or not, the Saudis are major players in most sports and their portfolio is only growing.
And if the time did come for elite female golfers to make their money grab, the least they could do is listen.
“At the end of the day, you’re trying to grow the game of golf,” Creamer said. “You’re trying to keep the game going, as well.”