Lewine Mair finds LET chief executive Alex Armas counting the days until the start of the new season.
Mike Whan and yourself have shown yourselves to be a great team since the LPGA and Ladies European Tour linked up at the end of 2019. Now that the ’21 schedule is out, perhaps can you look back for a minute and explain how you worked so well together?
A couple of things we have in common is that we both want things to happen now, and we both speak at the proverbial 100 mph. It certainly reveals a bit about how we got the LPGA-LET partnership up and running within the space of three months, which was pretty incredible. Another thing we have in common has been a shared vision of growing the game in Europe.
Our tour was shrinking and, with not enough tournaments here, girls were heading for America’s Symetra Tour at the age of 17 and 18 – far too soon for their own good. Mike, when he met a few of them, saw it for himself. Some of them gave up altogether and the subsequent drop off in the number of players was worrying the different European federations as much as anyone else. The federations liked the idea of an LPGA-LET partnership which offered players a pathway to the LPGA Tour, if that’s where they wanted to be. And if they wanted to stay at home, there would be a tour where they could at last make a decent living. Those girls who qualify for the LPGA Tour through the new pathway will be ready for the experience and that, of course, will work as well for the LPGA as for them.
In the months leading up to the partnership announcement, some LET members were fearful that their circuit, such as it was, would end up as a humble feeder tour to the LPGA. I remember Catriona Matthew, the Solheim Cup captain, saying that she felt that that it could affect the integrity of the Solheim Cup.
I know there were these concerns, but the idea of our tour being perceived as a feeder tour was the last thing I wanted, and the last thing Mike wanted. We called it a “joint venture partnership” from the start.
Without the LPGA’s help, I don’t know what the LET would have looked like after COVID-19. They’ve really embraced us. Mike has put a lot of funding towards our tour operating costs etc., but I’m hopeful we’re not going to be a financial drain on LPGA resources for too long. We couldn’t have gone anywhere without a schedule and now that we have one, that’s where we’re going to start noticing a difference. Sponsors will eventually be vying with one another for slots on the schedule and that, in turn, will encourage better prize funds and more interest from TV.
You had a seven-year spell as the LET’s executive director between 2005 and 2012 before returning as the chief executive officer in 2019. What happened in the interim to make you so right for your new role?
Growing up helps. When I stopped in 2012, I worked as a consultant specialising in start-up schemes. Apart from improving my technology skills, I taught myself that there are different ways of doing things. Also, I came to see that in my years on the tour I had been looking at ways to put right what was already in place when I needed to be looking at the LET as a whole new venture. I’ve also learned a lot from Mike in the last year. He has pushed me into delivering bigger events, and he’s introduced a lot of fresh energy to our workings. My strength in connection with the partnership has probably been my understanding of the European market network.
Are you worried that you might have too many limited fields among this year’s tournaments?
The majority of the events have 90-strong fields or more. I know that only a handful of our players have been qualifying for the majors in the last few years, but that will change in time. As soon as the girls have more playing opportunities, they’ll start making their way up the world rankings and they’ll be getting into the AIG Women’s Open and the Amundi Evian Championship.
Which events do you see as the main attention grabbers this year?
The Solheim Cup will be enormous, as will the Olympics in Japan. The team event in London which is part of the Saudi quartet is going to be huge, too, because people don’t see the girls playing that often in the London area. They’re going to love it.
What are your thoughts at the moment?
That I can’t wait to escape my office and see things getting under way. I’ve always been good at picking up my computer and working on the road, and wherever the ’21 schedule takes me, I’ll be there. COVID-19 is still a big part of everything and a lot of uncertainty remains, but I’m hopeful that ’21 will be an incredible year. And I’m confident that ’22, with COVID under control, will be even better.