January is a long time ago – and, in sporting terms, the starkness of our changed world is being felt acutely in women’s professional golf.
Over the first half of 2020, genuine optimism and excitement have gone, replaced by desperation and despair, with potential prosperity and viability wiped out by coronavirus.
Yet this year was supposed to be one of hope. It began with golf coming together to rescue the Ladies European Tour – offering, at last, a proper pathway for the continent’s best female players.
A joint news conference held near London on 24 January outlined a new relationship. It brought together the LET and LPGA with support from the men’s European Tour and R&A.
Five months on, the LET’s planned schedule, with 24 tournaments and record prize money, lies in tatters. As the men’s sector prepares to come out of lockdown, the women’s game remains paralysed.
The European Tour has announced its comeback with six British tournaments starting in July. There is relief that the men will compete for around £900,000 each week, but there was nothing for female counterparts to celebrate.
To demonstrate the point, an email from the father of an LET hopeful landed in my inbox. He wrote: “It seems such a missed opportunity to not reach out to the LET and co-host or at least help with getting a handful of women’s events organised at UK venues.”
He added: “I was just hoping that this event we are all living through might conjure up things differently. But alas, no.”
Solheim Cup player Mel Reid expanded on the theme while appearing on BBC Radio 5 Live’s The Guest List. The Florida-based Englishwoman said: “It’s a great opportunity, especially in golf – where we can have some mixed events and really bring the game to be more modern.
“I do think golf has been left behind a little bit compared to the progression of other sports.
“Now is a perfect time to reset. Why not throw in some new and fun events that have never been done before?”
The inaugural Scandinavian Mixed event, hosted by major-winning Swedes Henrik Stenson and Annika Sorenstam, was supposed to be held this month. European Tour men and women would have competed on the same course for the same prize.
Tour boss Keith Pelley was keen to harness the growing appeal of women’s sport. “The women professionals bring a different dynamic and fanbase to the game,” he has said.
“All of which improves our sport – and we look forward to building a strong women’s professional presence.”
But this is a moment when sporting entities are scrambling to secure their own existence. Any appetite to innovate has been replaced by conservatism, pragmatism and self-preservation.
This Tuesday, 2 June, is the fifth annual Women’s Golf Day – and this year, it is being celebrated virtually. But there is little to cheer at present for young female professionals who might, in different circumstances, have been looking at 2020 as the launchpad for their careers.
Indeed, there is no play on the LET until August’s Evian Masters, a major offering only limited places for the tour’s more senior players. So much for a bright, new future.
In the meantime, former British Open champion Georgia Hall, along with Charley Hull, has entered an unofficial tournament at Brockenhurst Manor in Hampshire on 18 June. It is being organised by influential LET player Liz Young.
Each competitor must pay £125 to create a prize fund for what will be the first women’s professional event since the easing of lockdown restrictions. Young is keen for more players to enter and to attract sponsors.
In the United States, the LPGA is trying to get back on its feet. Its boss Mike Whan admits his tour has been “eating up most of our savings” during lockdown. His circuit should be back in mid-July with a 21-tournament schedule worth £45m.
But as Reid pointed out on 5 Live: “It is hard to see your friends who have been on tour for such a long time and had a couple of not-so-great seasons having to reconsider whether they can support themselves.”
Reid, who has played in three Solheim Cups and was a vice-captain when Europe beat the United States at Gleneagles last year, now worries for the collaboration between the LPGA, where she is now based, and her home tour.
“That’s exactly what the LET needed and with the help of the men’s European Tour as well,” she said. “Of course a world crisis has happened, and there’s way worse things going on, but I’m really nervous for it.”
Whan has given assurances the LPGA will not abandon the LET and Reid sympathises with his position. “He’s probably having so many sleepless nights right now,” she said.
“It’s not like the men’s game, where they’re going to play in a couple of weeks on the PGA Tour and they have the financial resources to make it very safe for players and caddies.
“We just don’t have that kind of financial support. We can’t afford to have everyone in the same hotel, to charter flights from one tournament to the next and so it’s going to be more of a difficult task for us to get going again.”