Lessons From the Ladies: How the LPGA Tour Gets It Right

April 27, 2016

Last week I did something we all need to do more often: hang out at an LPGA event. In this case it was the Swinging Skirts, played at Lake Merced Golf Club on the outskirts of San Francisco. The general vibe was summed up by the four dudes in Danielle Kang’s gallery who wore head-to-toe cow onesies, a tribute to the sleepwear their heroine has made semi-famous on social media. Or maybe it was the moment during the second round when reigning U.S. Women’s Open champ In Gee Chun was walking off the 6th tee and an older gent blurted out, “In Gee, you’re so pretty.” Instead of ignoring him—which might have been prudent—she smiled beatifically and said, “Thank you!” 

On Sunday there was the rousing rendition of Happy Birthday that Lydia Ko received from the gallery lining the 1st tee, and the hilariously dorky San Francisco Giants ski cap Christina Kim wore…with ear flaps. Afterward, when a pixie in elaborate face-paint asked Kim for her autograph, the player insisted on taking a picture of the fan. “Ohmygawd, I love your face paint so much!” Kim said, and it looked as if it might have been one of the happiest moments of this little girl’s life. Not to be outdone, Kang signed autographs in her socks, because she had given her spikes away to a 10–year-old who asked for them as a souvenir. “On Sundays I give away pretty much everything,” says Kang. “Shoes, jackets, gloves, balls…all they have to do is ask.” During the pro-am, Kang pulled a girl out of the gallery and let her walk with her on the back nine. She even let her putt. If this pipsqueak holed any, did Kang count it toward her team’s pro-am score? “Heck, yeah!” she said.

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In case you can’t tell, they don’t take themselves too seriously on the LPGA tour. This is not to say that between the ropes it’s hit-and-giggle. While struggling off the tee on Friday, Stacy Lewis pounded her driver into the turf in disgust a couple of times with enough ferocity to startle the assembled onlookers. On Saturday, Haru Nomura drew a lie hard against the steep slope of a greenside bunker and struggled over and over to establish good footing. An anonymous fan sent an email through LPGA.com alleging that Nomura had built a stance, touching off a lengthy post-round review. When Nomura was exonerated by rules officials, Kim and Jane Park, among others, took to Twitter with a refreshing candor to voice their displeasure. “The @LPGA must follow a different set of golf rules, cuz they certainly dont help protect the field!” Park wrote. “Way to go rules officials! #triplebogey.” 

During the final round, Nomura, a largely unheralded 23-year-old who was born in Japan but grew up in Seoul, put on a rousing display of short-game wizardry en route to her second LPGA victory. No. 1-ranked Ko and No. 3-ranked Lexi Thompson both finished tied for sixth. Lake Merced is in the same part of the world as the Olympic Club, San Francisco Golf Club and Harding Park, and it is every bit as good a test as any of them. With a cold, heavy wind blowing all week, including gusts of 35 mph during the final round, Nomura posted rounds of 65-70-71-73. At one point on Sunday a backward-hatted bro in her gallery sniffed, “I hit it farther than she does.” That’s probably true, but only in his dreams could this dude go nine under in such brutal conditions.

That, for me, is a big part of the LPGA’s appeal. When I watch Dustin or Bubba or any of the other freaks on the PGA Tour fly it 350 or hit an 8-iron from 225 yards out I know they are playing a brand of caveman golf I can’t reproduce. But only a handful of LPGA players can overpower a course; the rest must navigate it with precision, guile and strategy. Watching them up close is a master class on course management and efficiency. I’ve made a vow to try to follow this model, not the mindless bomb-and-gouge that dominates Tour telecasts. 

Most refreshing for this admittedly jaded observer was the good cheer LPGA players extend to anyone who crosses their path. I spend almost all of my time on the PGA Tour, where many players seem to think they’re curing cancer, or doing work even more important than that. Fans, reporters, volunteers, and tournament officials are treated as inconveniences, at best. Golf is a niche sport, and the LPGA is a niche of a niche. Gratitude is an important part of the business model. 

“We love our fans so much,” says Kang. “We know that none of this would be possible without them. So of course we go out of our way to express that thanks. We want everyone who comes out to a tournament to say, Man, that was fun.”

Worked for me.