NAPLES, FLORIDA | The feel was decidedly different. Normally, when you walk down the range at the CME Group Tour Championship there are a lot of “see you next season” and “have a great holiday” conversations. Invariably, a player would admit to being exhausted. Caddies would do it all week. After all, this is the culmination of a season that started in January and globetrotted through 13 countries before wrapping up in the Sunshine State.
But not last week. The change in the format, with all 60 players in the field eligible to win $1.5 million, the largest prize in women’s golf history, gave this one a different feel.
“It feels more like a major,” LPGA commissioner Mike Whan said. “My wife mentioned it to me the other day. She said, ‘You know, it just feels a little bit more major this year,’ and I thought that was interesting from somebody who doesn't travel as much as you and I. Yeah, there’s an anxiety, there’s a little bit of an edge to the week, and I think that’s exciting.”
The walks were certainly more purposeful; the conversations more clipped. Life-changing money will do that to you.
Last week was a breakthrough for women’s sports. It’s hard to fathom, but a $1.5 million payday for a PGA Tour player has become old hat. Arab sheiks shell that much out in appearance fees to get their favorite players to come to some kingdom or another. A year ago last week, Phil Mickelson took home $9 million in a made-for-television duel with Tiger Woods.
The $1.5 million Sei Young Kim (above) earned as the tournament winner and Race to the CME Globe champion more than doubled her earnings for the year, and she already had two victories and six other top-10s in 2019.
“I think just the atmosphere of this event, not only with the purse doubling and the amount of money we were playing for makes a huge difference, but just the atmosphere, how this tournament is run, the amount of fans that we get out here, all the grandstands,” Lexi Thompson said. “It gives it a major championship feel for sure.”
“This is definitely a major tournament in how we play,” said Jin Young Ko, who won the tour’s Rolex Player of the Year award along with the money title and Vare Trophy for low scoring average. “Definitely.”
Much of that credit goes to Terry Duffy, CEO of title sponsor CME Group, who made this commitment on his own. During a conversation with Whan, Duffy said, “I wouldn't pay for the same work a different rate for a man versus a woman, and I'm sick of watching TV every weekend and watching a man win $1.5 million. At my event, a woman is going to win $1.5 million.”
Someday, that might be the case week in and week out. Someday a $1.5 million winner’s check might be standard in the women’s game. Whan thinks so.
“Pay gap is going to close in women's golf just like it’s going to close in women’s sports,” Whan said. “It’s not going to close because some ad agency comes up with a spreadsheet. That’s not how social movements happen. It’s going to happen because a couple people step up and say, ‘You know what, this is the right thing to do. I can afford to do it, and by God, I’m going to do it.’ And I think we’re going to see the same thing happen in golf. Is that going to happen in a year or two or 10? I don’t know. But I have zero doubt that’s going to happen and it won’t be because of the analysis run on branding numbers.”
Duffy and CME Group recognized it. Having 60 players in Naples the week before Thanksgiving and paying the purse they did was not a business decision based on analytics. It’s a decision based on love of the game.