Women’s golf has been in the news a lot recently. Again.
The Solheim Cup was a good bit and then there was the not-so-good bit when CEO Ivan Khodabakhsh left the Ladies European Tour for spearheading the organisation’s abject failure to provide a meaningful schedule for its players.
Weird, isn’t it? You have spent the weekend overheating on the warm glow emanating from Iowa, but the European team have to go to America to make a living – because the alternative is an off-season working a part-time job to make ends meet.
It doesn’t seem possible, does it, that one team in an event that attracts 200,000 people play on a tour that might be about to collapse.
As usual this weekend, we had the plastic women’s golf fans on Twitter, investing some serious time in tweeting their support to ‘our girls’. (Note the patronising tone attached to any comment on women’s golf.)
We are treated by the journalists in attendance to rushed-out puff pieces on the amazing spectacle it always feels like they were ‘surprised’ to find. Surprised, presumably, because for the remaining 362 days of the year they are as interested as you are or I are. Which is not very.
Before you rush to scream out that you love women’s golf – of course some of you do, just not very many of you.
The decisive putt was holed by Angel Yin who, at the time, had 750 Twitter followers. She now has 825.
I gained more followers by arguing with Denis Pugh for half an hour.
(Neither Georgia Hall nor Justin Thomas have “just burst on to the scene”, Peter Alliss fans. They turned pro within six months of each other.)
So why is no one interested?
Perhaps the quality of the sport is not very high? Wrong. It is incredible.
Witness Lexi Thompson playing a stretch of seven holes in eight-under, or the quite ludicrous mid-iron Anna Nordqvist hit to a foot to claim a half in that ridiculously high-quality opening singles match.
Perhaps there are no stars from our perspective? Well, I can think of four female British major winners in 30 years which is not exactly inspiring – but there is no lack of marketable stars and they work so hard to ensure they are taking every possible opportunity to market themselves and their sport.
Another reason journalists gush about women’s golf.
Maybe no-one is interested in women’s sport at all? Well, possibly in the past, but other sports have overcome that now. The women’s cricket World Cup final sold out. Four million people watched the Lionesses lose to the Netherlands in the semi-final of the women’s Euros. That is almost double the audience of the PGA Championship for the whole weekend. There is no lack of interest in women’s tennis. And there never has been in athletics.
We could now go down the grim and seedy cul de sac that is the free-to-air sports argument but we won’t. Mainly because that was last week.
The idea – just chatter at this stage – of the LET merging with the European Tour is appealing. Part of the problem with women’s golf is men’s golf, its ubiquity. With its wrap-around season there is no space for the women. Sponsors’ pockets are only so deep and they already have hundreds of high-profile men’s events to choose from each year.
The same problem definitely leads to viewer fatigue. I have written previously that I think scheduling would benefit from a week off after a major.
The week after the PGA Championship we had the Solheim Cup, the showpiece of the women’s calendar.
We male sports fans are inherently chauvinistic. Our inner cavemen says women don’t hit it as far, ergo it is not as good.
So if a unified tour could do one positive thing it would be to bring female golfers on to our screens when we can’t fail to be engaged.
For a professional sport or tour to be sustainable, though, you need fans. In some sports, football and NFL for example, fan numbers are not linked to participation.
In Britain, most people hang up their football boots in their mid-30s but they remain avid viewers of the sport for a lifetime. The same is true of gridiron – away go the shoulder pads and out come the giant foam fingers.
Outside of the Masters, Open and Ryder Cup, golf does not attract generalist sport fans. Your non-golfing mates are not tuning into the Greenbrier, or the European Open. Avid golf fans are almost all golfers.
To generate fans, golf needs participants. There are not enough female golfers in Europe and the ones it does have arrived at the sport late.
They are not wedded to it in the same way a child who has kicked a ball since they could walk is steeped in football.
At the last count, there were 98,000 female members of golf clubs in England. That’s 13 per cent. In Germany, it’s 38 per cent, while in France and Sweden it’s 29 per cent.
But the profile is the same. Most are over 50, and they come to the game later in life, often because their husband plays. Golf is primarily a social occasion in the same way as bridge, or bowls, might be.
The truth, then, is that if we want a thriving LET and a place for these golfers to earn the living their talent and hard work deserves then we need more participants.
The real upside of a unified tour might be that finally those at the top table of the sport’s administration start to look beyond their ivory towers and look more seriously at what is happening at grass-roots level.
Perhaps Ivan’s demise will act as the canary in coal mine for the sport as a whole because if participation doesn’t grow then all forms of the professional game will eventually perish.