The next frontier

January 22, 2023

Why Golf Saudi sees women's golf as ripe for disruption

The next frontier

It was time to talk about the future, the commissioner wrote. In a letter dated Sept. 12, 2022, Mollie Marcoux Samaan — then 16 months into her new role as head of the LPGA — sent a note to players congratulating them on a successful season, expressing her gratitude for the opportunity to lead their tour and optimism for where it was headed. However, Marcoux Samaan said, the LPGA could only get where it wanted to go by having everyone headed in the same direction.

“This is your tour and our success depends on your passion, your actions and your commitment to both your individual success and that of the organisation,” Marcoux Samaan wrote.

A former athlete and athletic director at Princeton, Marcoux Samaan said she would be providing information on conversations the LPGA was having with players on the Ladies European Tour and with LET officials, “and hope we can share perspectives on the changing global golf landscape.” The letter did not state the series, organization or monarchy that was spurring this change although the implication was clear: If LPGA players had the same reservations about dealing with the Saudis as their PGA Tour counterparts, this was the time to talk about it.

Marcoux Samaan went on to outline that she would be at six of the remaining eight events on the 2022 LPGA schedule, starting that week in Portland, Ore., for roundtable discussions to share information, thoughts, concerns and ideas. “I know it’s hard to make time during a tournament, but I can’t stress how important it is for us to communicate,” Marcoux Samaan wrote. “Your legacy is more than just how you play on the course or how much money you earn.” The first meeting was scheduled at noon on Wednesday, Sept. 14, in the player dining area at Columbia Edgewater Country Club.

No players showed up.

Some of the attendance issues could be attributed to miscommunication. Months later, miscommunication was blamed for players skipping a sponsored dinner at the CME Group Tour Championship, leading to the sponsor’s CEO publicly blasting Marcoux Samaan. Players did attend other meetings in the fall with LPGA brass; still, while no one is sure of Saudi Arabia’s long-term aspirations with the women’s game, few expect resistance to the kingdom’s efforts from LPGA leadership like those encountered by LIV Golf on the men’s side. Or, as the incidents above illustrate—along with snafus at this week’s season-opening Tournament of Champions, where players were initially denied locker-room access by the host course—whatever resistance exists may be rudderless.

It’s already been documented that Golf Saudi’s genesis is tied to the kingdom’s Vision 2030 blueprint, a plan to diminish the country’s reliance on oil by diversifying the economy, modernizing its public services and improving its global reputation. Golf was seen as a vessel to those ambitions with projects like developing courses and hosting professional competitions. It is this last point that sparked the Saudi International into existence in 2019, a tournament that was initially sanctioned by the European Tour. But Golf Saudi — and, as an extension, crown prince Mohammed bin Salman — were rebuffed in their attempts to become a more permanent fixture of golf’s political matrix with the PGA Tour and DP World Tour. This is what led the Saudis to start their own tour, which beget LIV Golf and the current schism in men’s professional golf.

Sources tell Golf Digest that among the LPGA players that Golf Saudi might target if it started a rival league are Nelly Korda and Lexi Thompson.

However, Golf Saudi has had far more success making inroads into the women’s game. In just two years, Golf Saudi has gone from hosting one event on the Ladies European Tour to six, with one of those events played in the United States. Unlike LIV Golf—which is composed largely of players a notch or two below the game's elite—Golf Saudi’s women’s events have attracted in-their-prime talent. Popular American players such as Lexi Thompson, Danielle Kang, Nelly and Jessica Korda, and Alison Lee have competed in Golf Saudi tournaments. So have international stars such as Lydia Ko, Brooke Henderson, Atthaya Thitikul, Anna Nordqvist, Minjee Lee and Leona Maguire. In fact, Jin Young Ko is the only player in the top seven in the Rolex Women’s Ranking who has not played in a Saudi-backed event. Similar to men's Golf Saudi events, there are extravagant purses to be had with opulent appearance fees for big names.

All six events — the Saudi Ladies International plus five “team series” tournaments played in Bangkok, London, Sotogrande, Spain, New York City and Jeddah—are sponsored by Saudi Aramco, the country’s state-run petroleum company. Aramco’s chairman is Yasir Al-Rumayyan, who is also the governor of the Public Investment Fund, the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund that controversially backs LIV Golf. Al-Rumayyan is a passionate golfer who believes the game can be a conduit to political and economic influence for the kingdom, and his input carries particular weight in bin Salman’s circle. Greg Norman may be LIV Golf CEO, but Al-Rumayyan and Golf Saudi CEO Majed Al Sorour are the two people who have final say over LIV/Golf Saudi matters.

Publicly, Norman’s voice has been the loudest over the past year. And while some of his statements have been contradictory in nature, the 67-year-old Aussie has been adamant that a LIV women’s league is coming.

“One hundred percent. Drop the mic on that,” Norman told the Palm Beach Post last July. “We have discussed it internally, the opportunity is there. … We’ve actually had one of the most iconic female golfers sitting in this room having a conversation with her. She absolutely loves the whole concept and is behind the whole concept.”

Months earlier in an interview with the BBC, Norman went so far as to say that LIV Golf attempted to make a strategic investment in both the LET and LPGA similar to the partnership LIV made with the Asian Tour, only for both women’s circuits to turn down the proposals. “Just because we offered that up we may have a different strategy going forward, so sit back and wait,” Norman said. “We’re here for a long, long period of time. We’re here to grow the game of golf on a global basis, not just in one specific sector, which is men’s. It’s across the board.”

Multiple sources familiar with Golf Saudi assert LIV’s focus is on its current men’s league, set for its second season in 2023. But Golf Saudi’s overtures into the women’s game have not gone unnoticed. That includes from the LPGA commissioner.

A week after Norman told the Palm Beach Post that LIV was interested in the LPGA, Marcoux Samaan told the London Times she was open to discussions. “It’s my responsibility to evaluate every opportunity,” she said. “I would engage in a conversation if it would achieve our aim of promoting women’s golf, but there needs to be input from players and sponsors. There’s a lot of factors to consider before we do business with LIV Golf.”

However, in an interview with Golf Digest’s Kent Paisley last fall, Marcoux Samaan said those conversations, at that point, had not transpired.

“No, nothing, nothing to report there,” Marcoux Samaan said regarding LIV rumors. “Just more generally … obviously, the golf world is changing and evolving and so it's really important to hear the player's perspective.”

Marcoux Samaan said “nothing specific” caused her to have the series of conversations with the membership she outlined in the Sept. 12 letter to players regarding the LPGA’s future. “I think part of my leadership style and what I think is really important is just to communicate,” she said.

As for what the agenda had been at those fall meetings, Marcoux Samaan said there was none. “Again, there was nothing specific that we were looking for, just to say, like, how are they feeling about the tour?” she said. “How are they feeling about what ideas do they have that we can make? We have to focus on ourselves. I think that's the most important thing for us to do is control the things that we control.”

Multiple industry sources outlined four potential scenarios regarding Golf Saudi’s ambitions with professional women’s golf. The first is to continue, and possibly expand, its current Aramco series within the LET framework. Aside from its existing six events, sources tell Golf Digest that two potential additions to the lineup could be visits to South Korea and Australia. The second scenario involves buying the LET; the third, buying the LPGA. The fourth would see Golf Saudi attempting to build its own circuit similar to the LIV Golf model.

As noted, the LPGA has maintained that no official offers have been made from Golf Saudi, LIV Golf or Aramco. The LET, however, renewed its agreement with Golf Saudi in November, highlighted by the announcement that the Saudi Ladies International, set to be played Feb. 16-19 will see an increase in its prize money from $1 million to $5 million in 2023—the same purse as the men’s Saudi International and the largest non-major purse on the LET. "It will allow the tournament to grow in every way, from its purpose and impact on social change to the delivery of exceptional experiences for fans and for players at the event and in the community,” said LET CEO Alexandra Armas. “This is a message to all young women that golf is for them, and they can pursue the sport as a passion and as a career." –Golf Digest

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