This past weekend, televised golf offered an instructive contrast in styles. At the AIG Women’s Open, we got the thrill of a Cinderella story. World No. 304 Sophia Popov faced difficult conditions, intimidating pursuers, and major-championship pressure, but she held steady down the stretch. At the Northern Trust on the PGA Tour, Dustin Johnson dismantled a recently renovated course to the tune of 30 under. No one in the stacked field finished within 10 shots of him.
These two wins were impressive in their own ways, but in a broader sense, they provide a snapshot of where the women’s and men’s games seem to be heading.
Since its return from the Covid-19 shutdown, women’s professional golf has had a tremendous run. We’ve seen great players take on great courses—including Inverness Club, Renaissance Club, and Royal Troon—and plenty of dramatic finishes to boot.
Generally, over the past few years, I’ve found myself tuning into the women’s game more and more. This is partly due to its increased coverage on TV and partly due to certain trends on the men’s circuit. Unlike on the PGA Tour, golf on the LPGA Tour (as well as on the other worldwide women’s tours) has retained its balance. Players of all types have shot at any tournament. Shorter hitters can compete with longer hitters.
Of course, distance is a definite factor in the women’s game. Anne van Dam murders the ball. Maria Fassi is averaging 292 yards off the tee this season, the same as Matt Every and 11 yards farther than Brendon Todd. Still, on the women’s tours, power hasn’t overrun the game. It’s what it should be: an advantage but not a requirement, a skill that helps players win but does not enable them to cancel out other skills, such as mid- and long iron play.
Even more critically, the game that the best female golfers play still matches the size of the best tournament golf courses. Again, don’t get me wrong: the top women hit it very long and straight. But the average driving distance on today’s LPGA Tour is similar to what it was on the PGA Tour in the early 1980s. This means that courses in the 6,500- to 7,000-yard range can hold up their end of the bargain at elite women’s events and challenge every facet of a player’s game.
During the 2020 Women’s Open, played at a windy, 6,632-yard Royal Troon, we saw just that. Cunning and shotmaking came to the forefront. The competitors’ typical trajectories and spin rates brought slopes on and around the greens into play. Fronting bunkers were intimidating, often prompting players to aim away from a pin if they had a poor angle.
As a diehard golf fan, I felt how a diehard baseball fan must feel during the postseason. In playoff baseball games, the margins are slim, and the most successful teams manufacture runs in nuanced ways: hit and runs, safety squeezes, pitch-outs. Similarly, the Women’s Open highlighted precise driving, well-struck long irons, varied short-game play, and patience. This is the kind of stuff that tragics love and obsess over. And in golf, despite advances in equipment, the intricacies we crave can still be found in women’s tournaments because the scale of the players’ games fits the scale of the venues.
At the PGA Tour’s Northern Trust, on the other hand, those scales were completely mismatched.
Dustin Johnson went 67-60-64-63, causing many to wonder whether TPC Boston, in spite of a recent renovation by Gil Hanse, was already out of date. But the low scores themselves are less important than how they were achieved: a monotonous repetition of crushed drivers and three-quarter wedges. I don’t mean to discount Johnson’s incredible performance against a strong field; he played the modern men’s game as well as it can be played. But it was all pretty simplistic compared to what we saw at Royal Troon.
If the Women’s Open was like playoff baseball, the Northern Trust resembled the Home Tour Derby: a fun, once-a-year exhibition that typically turns into a yawner after a few minutes. I suspect that distinction will only become clearer without new equipment regulations.
All of this adds up to an opportunity. Women’s professional golf could bring over more hardcore golf fans and eventually a bigger share of the mainstream audience. If this strikes you as unlikely, remember what happened in tennis in the 1990s. The increased speed and forgiveness of the composite racket stripped the elite men’s game of its tense, exciting rallies. Short serve-and-volley points became the norm, and power players dominated. Meanwhile, the more subtle and complex women’s game thrived, becoming a main draw for dedicated fans. With increased popularity came increased sponsorships and purse sizes. While there are still gender disparities in professional tennis, all four Grand Slam tournaments now offer equal pay to men and women.
Ultimately, the governing bodies of tennis recognized that the men’s game had a problem, so they slowed down the ball, bringing back rallies and their entertaining intricacies. Fortunately, the relative equality of men’s and women’s tennis has remained.
Golf still has a long way to go in this regard. For her victory at the Women’s Open, Sophia Popov took home a check of $675,000. Dustin Johnson’s bank account increased by $1,710,000.
In the decade ahead, however, we could see this wage gap get smaller. When the best women play the best courses, they deliver the best golf product. Fans will catch on eventually. If I were running an equipment company, I would be looking to sponsor top female players. After all, they might actually be able to attest to the benefits of, say, a high-launching long iron.
So I see many reasons to invest in women’s professional golf right now. The R&A seems to agree. Last week, it announced the upcoming venues for the AIG British Women’s Open. Eleven-time parkland host Woburn is out; Carnoustie, Muirfield, Walton Heath, St. Andrews, and Royal Porthcawl are in. These are world-class stages for world-class players, and I hope they help the women’s game continue to shine and grow.