Star-studded US Women’s Open stands in stark contrast to PGA Tour breakout

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We are constantly reminded that professional sport is a business. Don’t get too attached to the players, we’re told, because they could play for a different team at any time.

For individual sports like golf, the calculation is slightly different. But recent events remind us that, for better or for worse, money still matters.

LPGA

We’ll start with the “for the best” part. This weekend’s US Women’s Open – the second major of the season – is littered with past, present and future stars competing for their share of a record US$10 million purse, more than double the total from $4.8 million last year. By comparison, the 2021 men’s US Open handed out $12.5 million, including $2.25 million to winner Jon Rahm. The winner of this weekend’s women’s event will walk away with $1.8 million.

The remaining difference prompted world No. 3 Lydia Ko of New Zealand to point out that “there is still a long way to go” to achieve equal pay in golf. But at the very least, the increased prize money might have helped produce an extremely intriguing domain.

There’s the GOAT, Annika Sorenstam, playing her first US Women’s Open since 2008 at age 51 after winning the senior (50+) version of the event by eight strokes last season. The Swede has three US Women’s Open championships, including 1996 at Pine Needles – the same North Carolina course as this year’s tournament. The other blast from the past is Michelle Wie West, the former child star who owns her own US Women’s Open championship. Wie West, 32, plans to retire from professional golf after this weekend. Sorenstam and Wie West are currently expected to miss the cut.

The stars present are not lacking either. Sixth-ranked Lexi Thompson is looking to bounce back from a five-stroke lead on the final day of competition last year, while reigning Olympic champion Nelly Korda is contesting her first event since March after surgery for a blood clot. Canadian Brooke Henderson, ranked 11th, is also back after a long absence with illness. Meanwhile, 19-year-old phenom Rose Zhang, who just won the NCAA Individual Championship and became the first student-athlete to sign a sponsorship deal with Adidas, is also competing at Pine Needles.

At the time of our publication, 52nd-ranked American Mina Harigae was leading the tournament 9 under through 36 holes. Henderson hovered around the projected 1-over cut line early in her second round, while fellow Canadians Maude-Aimée Leblanc and amateur Lauren Kim were in danger of missing the cut. Follow the updated leaderboard here.

PGA

The good vibes on the women’s circuit contrast sharply with the men, who have just witnessed a small exodus of players to a dissident circuit backed by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund.

The first tournament in the LIV Golf series will take on the Canadian Open next weekend, and the field announced this week is made up of unnamed former stars and… Dustin Johnson, 37-year-old son-in-law of Wayne Gretzky currently ranked 13th on the PGA Round.

Johnson’s inclusion was a stunning turn of events after pledging his loyalty to the PGA Tour just months ago. But the South Carolina native’s move is also explainable: The telegraph reported that Johnson would be paid around US$125 million just to join the start-up league. The purse for each of the eight LIV events is $25 million, to boot. The money more than makes up for his loss of RBC endorsement that followed his sudden withdrawal from next weekend’s Canadian Open, which he won in 2018. Yet explainable doesn’t mean defensible. DJ is about to get paid, but given Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, the money might as well be spattered with blood.

The PGA Tour threatened LIV defectors with a sliding scale of penalties, including lifetime bans. Seemingly undeterred, Johnson is about to take the money and flee.

Phil Mickelson was the biggest name involved in the breakaway circuit until author Alan Shipnuck published an interview in February where Lefty admitted he was willing to ignore the country’s alleged crimes ‘because it’ is a unique opportunity to reshape the way the PGA Tour operates.” The 51-year-old opted out of defending his PGA Championship last month but also did not appear in the LIV squad, although some spots in the 48-man competition remain open.

Meanwhile, a pretty strong field is competing at the Memorial Tournament, where Canadians Mackenzie Hughes and Corey Conners are both well-placed to go head-to-head until the weekend. Follow the standings live here.

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