The Week Grip — Your Foolproof, Accessible LPGA Primer
Welcome to the eighth installment of the Week Grip! Click here for the others, and follow along throughout 2019.
I think I speak for almost all male golf fans when I say that I don’t pay enough attention to the LPGA Tour. It’s understandable — everyone’s stretched so thin between work, school, families, friends, and countless other demands that even following the PGA Tour from week to week can get difficult. But I guarantee that if you make even a cursory effort to check in on the women’s game once or twice a week, your overall enjoyment of the sport will increase exponentially. And if you think that’s a little far-fetched, give me a couple more paragraphs to explain first why, and then how, you should follow the women’s game.
WHY THE LPGA?
- The players are hilarious
First of all, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the personalities on the LPGA Tour blow those on the men’s tour out of the water. Male professional golfers are just about the most boring group of individuals on planet Earth. Most of them have been groomed to be pros since they were barely old enough to walk, and any shred of personality or spark was scolded out of them long ago. They’re sponsored to within an inch of their life, and all you have to do is look at the Kuchar/El Tucan debacle to see what kind of backlash results when a player puts a toe out of line. Sure, you’ve got guys like Rory and Koepka who speak their mind from time to time, but that’s the exception, not the rule.
That video above shows just a sliver of LPGA Tour life, but it’s the kind of thing you can expect from most players in any given field. Kind, outgoing women who are always quick to laugh and trade good-natured jabs with each other and their fans. More evidence? Check out megastar Michelle Wie’s first line in this video, while playing a pro-am for no less a tournament than the Women’s PGA Championship:
You can’t get some of the guys on tour to participate in a voluntary long-drive contest during a PGA Championship practice round (shout out Bubba Watson), and here’s one of the biggest names in women’s golf just roasting Soly for a ridiculous line off the tee.
And they’re not afraid to poke fun at themselves, either:
2. The players’ stories are fascinating
In addition to the humor angle, though, most of these ladies have captivating backstories. At the risk of leaning too much on NLU and Michelle Wie, this podcast detailing her career is full of insane nuggets that have gotten lost over time, like the fact that she was a shot away from making the cut at the Sony Open, a PGA TOUR event, at fourteen years old!
But let’s move away from Michelle. If you’re even relatively plugged in to the world of golf, you’ve heard of world number 1 Ariya Jutanugarn. She’s the first Thai golfer to win a major championship (sorry Kiradech), having captured the 2016 Women’s British Open and the 2018 U.S. Women’s Open. She first ascended to the top of the rankings in June of 2017, and has finished top 10 in all five majors in the past three years (yes, there are five majors — explained below). Oh, also? Ariya Jutanugarn is twenty three years old.
Jutanugarn qualified for the Honda LPGA Thailand in 2007, when she was eleven years of age, making her the youngest to ever qualify for an LPGA Tour event. She’s got a sister, Moriya, who’s a year older and also plays professionally (and Moriya’s no slouch, with one win and at least a T16 in every major). That sibling rivalry brings out the competitor in both sisters, but can also lead to some less-than-ideal consequences:
In a practice round at the 2013 Wegmans LPGA Championship, Jutanugarn injured her shoulder by tumbling down an incline while chasing her sister Moriya with a water bottle.
Imagine if this happened to Brooks Koepka during the PGA Championship because he was trying to brain Chase with a water bottle? It would be #content for weeks!
Aside from growing up in Thailand, the Jutanugarns have a relatively mundane backstory for professional golfers, as their parents run the pro shop at a course near Bangkok. Still, Ariya’s success has made her a hero in her home country.
The second-ranked female golfer in the world is Sung Hyun Park, a 25-year-old South Korean who captured the 2017 U.S. Women’s Open in her rookie season on the LPGA Tour, after winning the money title the season before on the LPGA of Korea Tour. You may have heard of that event, as it was played at Trump National Bedminster, and the POTUS himself attended, watching with (I have to imagine) some chagrin as not one American golfer finished inside the top 10.
And that’s kind of a theme on the LPGA Tour — in addition to the youth dominance, the diversity is staggering. While we’re used to watching titles get traded back and forth by DJ, Spieth, JT, Brooks, and Bryson, with a little European spice thrown in for good measure, the women’s tour is truly a global affair. As of this week, the top 10 in the women’s rankings hail from these countries, in order: Thailand, South Korea (x3), USA, Japan, Australia, England, Canada, and South Korea. Their ages: 23, 25, 28, 30, 24, 20(!), 22, 22, 21(!), and 23. Just a bunch of elite athletes casually dominating their sport at an age most of us were living in our parents’ basement and looking for jobs.
No? Just me? OK, moving on.
Honestly, you can throw a dart at an LPGA leaderboard and find a player with a cool story. Take Nelly Korda, winner this weekend at the Australian Open. First, she also has a professional golfer for a sister — Jessica, who’s got 5 professional wins, including one after having the entire bottom half of her face reconstructed. And also, check this out:
Not a big deal.
3. Their games are at once relatable, and incredibly foreign
This one comes down to two things: distance and accuracy. Understandably, women don’t hit the ball as far as men do. According to the LPGA website, one player (Anne Van Dam) averages over 300 yards, and the second-longest player on tour averages 290. A ton of players average in the 250s-270s, a distance that seems within reach of most relatively proficient male players. In contrast, Rory hit a drive on 18 at Riviera just now that carried 296 uphill. That’s inhuman.
Working hand in hand with that driving distance is the array of fluid, languid, on-tempo, and most importantly unique golf swings on display from week to week. The men’s game can start to feel like a golf swing beauty pageant, with the younger generation (minus Matthew Wolff) sporting high-octane swings tailored by TrackMan and Joey D to maximize distance. In contrast, check these moves out:
Weekend warriors can’t hope to emulate Rory or Adam Scott’s swing, but the vast majority of us do try to emulate their speed, most often with disastrous results. We need to start looking to the women’s game for swing tips, because these ladies get the job done with a vast array of motions, the constants being great tempo and extreme accuracy.
And the accuracy bit is where LPGA players make their money. To wit:
I’d wager that hitting every fairway will put you in pretty solid position to win a golf tournament.
A bit more context: at this point in the season, there are seven ladies who sport a GIR percentage of 80% or higher, including leader Jin Young Ko, who’s hitting greens at a ridiculous 86.1% clip. The best on number on the men’s tour belongs to Louis Oosthuizen (obviously) at 79.4%. Oh, also, Jin Young Ko is 23 years old. It’s honestly kind of ridiculous how good and young these players are.
HOW TO FOLLOW THE LPGA
OK, if you’re still reading, then you’re at least slightly intrigued in this brand of golf, and you’re wondering how to get involved. The good news in the short term: every tournament until May 23 takes place either in Asia, California, or Hawaii! #PrimeTimeGolf
Before getting into individual TV times, however, here’s a brief guide to the women’s majors. God knows it’s difficult enough to tune in to some of the men’s events, so if you have to budget your golf watching, make sure to carve out some time for these ones.
- ANA Inspiration, April 1–7, Mission Hills Country Club
History: The season’s first major is now titled the ANA Inspiration, used to be called the Kraft Nabisco Championship, and is most often referred to as the Dinah Shore (like the Bob Hope at Pebble Beach), in reference to the entertainment icon who helped cofound the event? Got it? Great.
It’s been played annually at Mission Hills Country Club since its inception in 1972, and has been classified as a major since 1983.
Why you know it: I guess this had to come up eventually: this is the one where Lexi Thompson got called for incorrectly marking her ball, got hit with a four-stroke penalty, and lost in a playoff.
The extraordinary thing about this situation was that the penalty was assessed while Thompson was playing the back nine of the final round, and the infraction had happened on the 17th hole of the third round. A viewer called in the penalty during the final round, so she walked off the 12th green with a two-shot lead, and a major championship halfway in the bag, and teed off on the 13th hole two shots behind. Frankly, the fact that she made birdie on 13 and 18 to get into the playoff at all is a colossal triumph. Unfortunately, the rule was enforced correctly, and they’ve thankfully done away with all call-in rules violations to make sure this never happens again.
On a lighter note, the ANA Inspiration is the event where the winner jumps in the pond by the 18th green — it’s called Poppie’s Pond, in honor of longtime tournament director Terry “Poppie” Wilcox.
Defending Champion: Pernilla Lindberg, Sweden
- Three of the last four events have ended in a playoff.
- 1998 winner Pam Hurst only waded into Poppie’s Pond up to her knees, as she couldn’t swim.
- The event has become a hugely popular destination for lesbians and bisexual women, and has been referred to as “spring break for lesbians,” although it seems that the golf tournament and the party atmosphere remain separate, unlike at the Waste Management Phoenix Open.
2. U.S. Women’s Open, May 27-June 2, Country Club of Charleston
History: This one should be fairly obvious. Established in 1946, and recognized as a major by the LPGA since the organization’s founding in 1950, this is The Big One (at least according to those in the States — see below).
Why you know it: Well, because it’s the U.S. Open. The event’s last brush with major news came in 2014, when the USGA actually did something that garnered some measure of support by hosting the women’s event at Pinehurst №2 the week after the men’s event there.
Defending Champion: Ariya Jutanugarn, Thailand
- As mentioned above, the U.S. Women’s Open is not recognized as a major by the Ladies European Tour or the LPGA of Japan Tour. Both have their own sets of major championships, though almost all of the world’s top players compete in the U.S. Open regardless.
- At that previously mentioned 2014 Open, 11-year-old Lucy Li became the youngest competitor in the event’s history, breaking a record previously held by Lexi Thompson, who had played in the 2007 event at age 12.
- The event has been played over some fine courses, including some that don’t quite have the infrastructure to host a men’s event, like Sebonack, Pine Needles, Newport CC, and Prairie Dunes, among others.
3. KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, June 17–23, Hazeltine National
History: It’s the second longest-running event in LPGA History, having been founded in 1955. It’s generally kind of a big deal.
Why you know it: I mean, aside from the fact that it’s a major, this event is notable for its professionals-only status, and the controversy surrounding (who else?) Michelle Wie in 2005. From the good folks at Wikipedia:
In 2005 this [pros only] rule was revoked, effectively to allow 15-year-old amateur Michelle Wie to compete, in order to attract more media coverage and sell more tickets, though this was not publicly acknowledged by the LPGA. Some professionals objected to this move, as they felt that places given to amateurs would come at the expense of the LPGA Tour’s less successful professionals, who need to play regularly to make a living. One of the leading professionals, Laura Davies, stated objections to the change were shortsighted.
At the time, Wie had made the cut in all five majors that she had played, with two top-ten finishes, and had also played twice in the Sony Open in Hawaii on the PGA Tour, but missed both cuts. Despite the controversy, she outscored all but one of the pros in the 2005 LPGA Championship and was the runner-up, three strokes behind three-time champion Annika Sörenstam.
In 2006, the LPGA Championship reverted to its “professionals only” status, with only pros in the field. Wie had turned professional the previous October, upon signing multimillion-dollar endorsement contracts with Nike, Sony, and other sponsors.
Defending Champion: Park Sung-hyun, South Korea
- Inbee Park pulled the Tom Emanski, winning back-to-back-to-back Women’s PGAs from 2013–2015
- The legendary Mickey Wright holds the record for most wins, with 4. Nancy Lopez, Annika Sorenstam, and Se Ri Pak are among the group with 3.
- Since the PGA of America took over management in 2015, event hosting rights have come as a package deal for both the mens’ and women’s tournaments. So Aronimink was given the 2020 Women’s and 2027 Men’s events, Baltusrol the 2023 Women’s and 2029 Men’s, and Congressional the 2025 Senior Men’s and 2027 Women’s.
The Evian Championship, July 22–28, Evian Resort Golf Club
History: This event is held in France, as you might imagine, and is the newest addition to the major lineup, having been founded in 1994. It’s one of two majors founded by the Ladies European Tour (take a guess at the other one), and became co-sanctioned as an LPGA event in 2000, then as an LPGA major in 2011.
Why you know it: It’s the second-richest event in women’s golf (after the U.S. Open), and personally, I just remember it because the Evian branding makes it sound elegant as hell. Plus, it’s played at the Evian Resort course, which reinforces that with its view over Lake Geneva.
Defending champion: Angela Stanford, USA
- Angela Stanford bucked the youth trend with her win last year at age 40. The seasoned vet had played on six Solheim Cup teams (the women’s equivalent of the Ryder Cup, and deserving of a separate post), yet had never bagged a major until breaking through last year.
- Paula Creamer owns the largest margin of victory here, when she absolutely bludgeoned the field by 8 strokes in 2005 as a 19-year-old.
AIG Women’s British Open, July 29-August 4, Woburn Golf Club
History: Surprisingly, the Women’s British Open wasn’t established until 1976, and has been an LPGA major since 2001. Perhaps unsurprisingly, organizers had a tough time getting the UK’s top-tier courses to agree to host, though that exclusivity thankfully broke down in the 1990s and 2000s.
Why you know it: In recent history, LPGA Tour rookie Georgia Hall earned her first LPGA Tour win, first LET win, first major, and first pro win on home soil all in the same day, by capturing last year’s Women’s British Open.
Defending Champion: See above.
- The early snobbishness of many British golf clubs forced the event to find hosts where they could, including a seven-year run at Woburn Golf Club in the late 80s and early 90s, where Ian Poulter now serves as the club’s “touring professional.”
- Since the event has become an LPGA major, South Korea leads the way with 6 title-winners, followed by the USA with 3 and England with 2.
- Hosting sites are now on a level playing field with the men. A sampling of recent venues: Royal Lytham & St. Annes, Kingsbarns, Turnberry, Royal Birkdale, The Old Course, Royal Liverpool, and Carnoustie.
Upcoming LPGA Event Times
Ready to dive in? Great! Granted, you might need to awaken your inner night owl to enjoy the bulk of coverage in the upcoming weeks, but March and April are smooth sailing.
I’m not making some grand, sweeping proclamation demanding everyone devote eight hours every weekend to watching women’s golf. Hell, I only watch that much of the men’s tour during the majors and the Ryder Cup, and I’m one of the biggest golf fans I know. But it’s pretty clear that the LPGA Tour is full of supremely talented, incredibly interesting women who deserve way more of our attention than they’re currently getting.