While some are saying golf is on the decline, the LPGA Tour is enjoying an upswing
When Team USA secured the Solheim Cup over Team Europe in 2017, Twitter exploded congratulating the U.S. in what was one of the most exciting displays seen in women's golf.
It seemed that the entire world of golf was watching, and the numbers didn't lie: 968,000 viewers tuned in to watch the final day, the largest TV audience the Solheim Cup had seen in a decade. Attendance hit a record as well, with 124,426 people coming to watch the event unfold in Des Moines, Iowa.
Although golf has seen highs and lows over the past decade, this past season, the LPGA Tour saw an overall increase in TV viewership and attendance, cementing itself firmly in the world of golf.
According to the LPGA, total broadcast hours on the Golf Channel and network TV in the United States were at a record high in 2017, at more than 415 hours, nearly double the figure from 2011, with nearly 22 million viewers tuning in. Coverage drew an average of 221,000 viewers per telecast, and 1.8 million unique viewers saw each weekly tournament on Golf Channel. There was a 24 percent rise in TV viewership in 2017, and there has been a 100 percent increase since 2011.
The LPGA doesn't plan to slow down.
In 2018, the LPGA will play 34 events in 14 countries. The 2018 season will offer an overall record purse of $68.75 million (up $5.8 million since 2016, when there were 33 official money events). In 2017, the total purse was $65.55 million (also 33 events).
The goal is to continue building off the memorable moments from 2017.
"There's just so many, so many big memories [from 2017], like standing on the first tee at Des Moines and feeling how big women's golf is while reading texts and Twitter from people that don't normally follow our sport," LPGA commissioner Mike Whan said.
It wasn't just the Solheim Cup that captivated audiences, according to Whan. When Danielle Kang, a longtime fan favorite on the tour, captured her first tournament and first major at the KPMG Women's PGA Championship, the excitement around her win was palpable. A record number of viewers for that event tuned in on the final day for the tournament, and a new star on the LPGA was born.
The LPGA's recent rise in popularity and exposure has not been without struggles, though. Morgan Pressel, who burst onto the scene of the LPGA in 2007 at 18 years old, experienced the LPGA at its lowest point during the economic recession in 2008 and watched as the tour tried to find stable ground.
"We went through a phase where it was a tremendous struggle to keep a full season and purses were down, which created a lot of uncertainty [about future of LPGA]," Pressel said.
When Mike Whan came on to serve as commissioner in 2010, he decided the LPGA needed a new approach to survive: Go global.
For Pressel, this has served as the greatest reason for the LPGA's ascent.
"Our depth of talent has tremendously increased due to our global reach being greater than ever," Pressel said.
The push to go global was initially met with resistance.
I think being able to travel the world and get more people around the world aware of the LPGA has been huge in the foundation to grow the game.LPGA player Morgan Pressel
"When you go global, it's not much fun in the beginning. You're making a lot of mistakes, there's language barriers, and you get homesick. There's a lot of things about going global that make for a great PowerPoint slide at a board meeting, but the actual doing it is hard, and we were right in the middle of the hard part," Whan said.
But he knew the tour had to step outside its comfort zone to save itself. "I want us to be afraid of the status quo because I don't believe when our founders started the LPGA 60 years ago that they didn't take chances."
Angel Yin, who played her rookie year on the LPGA last season, embraces the worldwide aspect of the tour.
"It's so cool how the LPGA is so global," Yin said. Although traveling from country to country can be physically exhausting, she said her favorite tournaments were played overseas.
"I have never been to Malaysia, Japan, Korea or Taiwan, and it's great that we're able to expand outside of the United States and expose people all over to the talent of the LPGA," she said.
Pressel agreed. "I think being able to travel the world and get more people around the world aware of the LPGA has been huge in the foundation to grow the game."
According to the LPGA, in 2018, the tour will have more than 450 hours available internationally in up to 175 countries. The bigger LPGA events will attract around 500 million TV households across the globe, with the KPMG Women's PGA Championship and Evian Championship expected to peak at around 600 million.
As the tour has begun to reach more people internationally, Whan has seen a shift in how people view the players.
"Back in 2010 and 2011, most fans viewed players as a flag. Na Yeon Choi wasn't known as 'NYC' like she is today. [With more TV coverage] fans have gotten to know the players like Lydia Ko, who isn't just a player from New Zealand," Whan said.
Viewers and fans of golf having more of an opportunity to get to know players is essential.
"Back in 2008, Brooke Henderson would have just been a Canadian playing on tour. Now you get people following these players because they've built a connection to them." For Whan, this is where the longevity of the tour rests.
LPGA player Kim Kaufman, who will play her fifth season on tour this year, believes the spike of the growth is due in part to social media.
"Social media has made a strong impact. Not only is the LPGA able to promote [itself], but players are able to connect with fans," she said.
The greatest testament to the LPGA's continued growth is seeing how it bounced back from controversy last season. From a bad ruling that cost Lexi Thompson a major to the U.S. Open being held at President Donald Trump's course in New Jersey to an outcry over the LPGA's new dress code guidelines, the LPGA kept finding a way to put the focus back on the golf and the mission of the tour: to improve opportunities for LPGA players to play the best venues and increase their earning potential.
True to his optimistic approach to growing the LPGA, Whan didn't view the controversies as setbacks. Instead, he saw it as evidence of continued budding interest in the tour.
"The LPGA is starting to deal with some of these kind of things based on the fact that there is a level of audience and commitment from the fans at a higher level now," he said. "If we look at organizations like the NFL, they never play a season where they don't deal with controversy. If we want to continue to grow, we can't be afraid of controversy because we don't want to make mistakes."
Quickly tying it to golf, Whan told his staff: "We have to be just like our athletes, who in the offseason will make major changes to their swing, diet and workouts, in an effort to gain more yardage or to hit more greens in regulation. We have to be willing to do the same thing, so when you take some chances, some are going to work and some aren't. But our goal can't be to be conflict-free because if you're going to be conflict-free, you don't take any chances."