USGA Should Follow Lead of Tennis, Hold Coed U.S. Open With Equal Purses

Having Jordan Spieth and Lydia Ko on the same track for the same tournament could do wonders for the golf pay gap.

Who is the greatest tennis player of all time? Roger Federer and Steffi Graf spring to mind. So do Pete Sampras and Martina Navratilova. Then there’s Serena Williams, whose dominance and personality left indelible marks on the game.

Notice something? There are no gender barriers in the debate. This isn’t to say tennis is free of inequality or biases — world No. 1 Novak Djokovic recently said that male tennis players deserve to earn more than their female counterparts — but still, a great female player can be a bona fide superstar, a global brand who fills seats and bank accounts. As Serena Williams is quick to point out, the women’s final at the 2015 U.S. Open sold out before the men’s.

None of this happened by accident.

The tennis U.S. Open was the first major tournament to level the proverbial playing field (or court, as it were) by paying out the same purses for men and women. (The men’s and women’s singles champs at the last year’s Open each pocketed a cool $3.3 million.) Female standouts enjoyed primetime television shine on center court. Their sport was — gasp! — actively promoting them.

Isn’t it time golf did the same for its female players on one of the game’s grandest stages? Two years ago the United States Golf Association conducted the men’s and women’s U.S. Opens on the same course, Pinehurst No. 2, but not during the same week and certainly not with the same prize money. The men’s winner that year, Martin Kaymer, went home with $1.62 million, while the women’s champ, Michelle Wie, won $720,000.  

The USGA has the platform and — thanks to its 12-year, $1 billion TV deal with Fox — the resources to do something truly radical: equalize the purses for its men’s and women’s Opens.

But let’s not stop there. The USGA could hold the Opens concurrently over four days on two venues in the same vicinity. The ladies could play, say, Spyglass Hill, while the men play Pebble Beach. Plenty of other tournament-ready tandems from coast to coast also could handle the crush: Merion and Aronimink. Riviera and L.A. Country Club. Olympic and San Francisco Golf Club. Hazeltine and Interlachen. Shinnecock Hills and National.

Better yet, hold the championships at a site with multiple courses — see, Winged Foot, Bethpage, Torrey Pines, Whistling Straits — so fans could meander between events.

One of the coolest parts about attending a tennis tournament is bouncing from court to court throughout the day and watching both the men and women. It normalizes the sport from a gender perspective and elevates both sexes — and the game, too. Herds of fans who are unfamiliar with the women’s game would get a chance to see the incredible talents of Lydia Ko and Inbee Park and Lexi Thompson (who, by the way, outdrives many of the male pros).

The USGA could up the ante even more by introducing coed groupings: a woman with two men, or a man with two women. They’d play the same holes (from different tee boxes) with the same green speeds, holes locations and weather conditions. Play that format for the first two days, then revert to single-gender pairings for the weekend.

Would it irritate some players? No question. Would it create a logistical headaches for the USGA and its broadcast partners in the short term? Without a doubt. But surely it would be worth suffering those growing pains to establish a standard of equality in a sport that so desperately needs it.

Addressing the pay gap in any sector inevitably leads to a flurry of excuses:  It’s beyond fixing. It’s a cultural problem. Let the market sort things out. Many observers contend that male golfers attract bigger audiences, so they deserve bigger paydays. This reductive analysis ignores the cultural constructs within which the so-called free market exists. The market is only as free as the society in which it exists, and in golf women are openly and unfairly  deemed to have less ability — a topic I addressed earlier this year.

Effecting cultural change is, by nature, a long, arduous battle. The LPGA is fighting the good fight, fervently working to raise purses. Still, the gaping wage gap persists, by a factor of two, three, or even 10 times depending on the tournament. Lydia Ko, the leading money winner on the LPGA tour last year, made just more than $1.1 million. That would have put her about 95th on the PGA Tour money list. 

The USGA, perhaps more than any other golf organization, has the means and — one would hope — the motivation to bridge golf’s gender divide. It’s not only the right thing to do, but it’s also a smart thing to do. Surely more women would be enticed to watch, learn, play and invest in a game in which they’re paid as equals in competition. A coed U.S. Open would be a hallmark grow-the-game initiative for the good folks in Far Hills.

To steal from political parlance, golf needs to broaden the tent, rather than electrify the base. Women don’t need to be pandered to, or to have special pretty pink gear made for them. They just need to treated like equals, and that means getting paid like equals.