Four men and a lady sat around a conference table. While it sounds like the start of a bad joke, this is how our women in golf discussion started. The biggest issue quickly became abundantly clear.
Golf fans recognize Paige Spiranac but the majority can’t name the top LPGA player of 2016.
Which spurred us to ask, “is the women’s game becoming a popularity contest?”
Unlike their male counterpart, the success of a female golfer seems to fall into one of two categories.
First is the undeniable talent. We need go no further than Inbee Park; a South Korean player whose talent speaks for itself. She’s swimming in Major Championship wins and her closest rival in the men’s game would be Phil Michelson with 5 compared to her 7. She doesn’t have an Instagram account, dresses in conservative golf attire, and has been named one of espnW’s 10 female athletes who have made the biggest impact in their sport.
Next are the undeniable looks. To date Paige Spiranac has over 664k Instagram followers, and is better known for her model looks and poses than her golf swing. Like Kim Kardashian, she’s leveraged social media to make a name for herself and drive her career. While a decent golfer, it’s her initial Instagram popularity which landed her on a front cover of Golf Digest and an invitation to the Omega Dubai Ladies Masters – even though she didn’t qualify.
Many justify her invitation saying it brings awareness to the LPGA event and attracts larger sponsorship deals. But a deeper look at the 2015 TV ratings show that when Paige competed approximately 25,000 people watched. It wasn’t until she left that 69,000 tuned in. Some may argue that later rounds simply get more viewership but other women's golf events have seen greater success rates. The 2015 Women’s PGA Championship was reported as the most-watched women’s Major Championship in three years, and Paige was absent.
How is it that other women’s sports are closing the gap with the men's game, without having to come up with publicity stunts? Look no further than tennis, where the 2015 U.S Open singles final sold out before the men’s. The Williams sisters took center stage and even the number one player in the world, Novak Dokovic, couldn’t pull the crowds in the same way.
If you start adding people to the Tour, that haven’t actually earned it, you risk losing the integrity of the sport in search of short term popularity - Paige missed the cut. She wasn’t deserving of a spot at the event, nor is any woman (or man) who can’t compete at the highest level.
Having said that, completely ignoring her popularity and the benefits it could bring would be foolish. Her initial launch into stardom emerged the same week as The Open, and the traffic generated by her pictures buried the numbers of people clicking to see who won.
We applaud Paige for gaining a large following and making women’s golf more mainstream; there’s nothing wrong with her using sexuality to boost interest in golf. Women have done it in other sports.
But, we would be hypocrites if we stood behind someone getting on a Tour event SOLELY for publicity sake. We stand by our recent article saying that if golfers are going to be regarded as professional athletes they’ve got to act like them.
That means earning a Tour card and leaving the popularity contest for Instagram.