Belleair, FLA. — The winner’s check at the upcoming CME Group Tour Championship will be equal to or greater than the purse at 20 of the 32 events on the LPGA this season. That record-setting $2 million payday will make headlines across the country and continue the narrative that there’s more money than ever in the women’s game, and while that’s true, it’s not the whole story.
For those players who have conditional status on the LPGA and fall between No. 101 and 150 on the money list, it’s becoming increasingly harder to make a living.
As major championship purses soar and more players than ever (currently 22) are enjoying seven-figure seasons on the LPGA, the majority of week-to-week purses on the biggest tour in the women’s game have barely increased over the last decade.
“I’ve seen so many players quit due to finances and not due to lack of talent,” said nine-year veteran Amy Olson, who also happens to be a CPA.
“You have to have a tour that provides sustainability for that next generation, and we don’t have that right now.”
The CME Group Tour Championship’s purse has increased from $1.5 million to $7 million in the last decade, surpassing and pushing even major championships to put up more cash. This year, the U.S. Women’s Open offered a record $10 million purse. The AIG Women’s British Open prize fund has increased 125 percent since 2019. Over the past 10 years, the average winner’s check at the majors has risen from $422,000 to $1.2 million. That’s life-changing money.
The money at other week-to-week events that have been the backbone of the LPGA for decades, however, have only slightly increased in that timeframe. This includes longstanding limited-field events in Asia, which have gone up only $100,000 or $200,000 since 2012.
The limited-field Asian events (where there’s no cut) have always been considered rewards for top players. But, despite tournament organizers paying expenses, those who have a bad week in Asia now lose money after paying their caddie’s expenses due to stagnant purses and increased travel costs.
The average purse on the LPGA 10 years ago – not counting the majors or CME – was $1.57 million. This year it’s $1.87 million.
That’s an increase of 19 percent over the course of 10 years, below the rate of inflation in that timeframe. Consider that from 2002 to 2012, the average purse increased by 43 percent.
In 2012, there were 19 events with purses below $2 million; this year there were 15.
It’s not unusual for a player to make the cut on the LPGA and still lose money after paying her caddie and expenses for the week. Olson said many resort to using credit cards.
“Can you even imagine the pressure standing over a drive with OB right and water left thinking, I just put $4,000 on a credit card for this week,” said Olson. “That is not a sustainable way to play golf. There’s already enough pressure the way it is.”
Amy Olson chips to the fifth green during the second round of the Dana Open presented by Marathon at Highland Meadows Golf Club on September 02, 2022 in Sylvania, Ohio. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
While the top half of the tour has never been richer, the bottom half remains pinched, despite each position on the money list improving. The range of purse sizes on tour has become so large, in fact, that in 2021, the LPGA transitioned to determining status based off the Race to the CME points list rather than the money list.
Why does the average purse matter? Because those are the fields that up-and-comers are getting into through Qualifying School and the Epson Tour. That’s where most players begin the dream, with purses that are $1.5 million. And while most of the top players coming from other countries have the financial backing and support from their national programs, American players who aren’t superstars are mostly on their own.
“If you make the cut and finish 50th or 60th,” said Cheyenne Knight, “you’re breaking even or still might be losing money.”
As the nation struggles with inflation, women who live most of their year on the road are taking a significant hit. Dana Finkelstein said a plane ticket from Phoenix to Tampa that used to run $170 is now $370. She looked into flights on Tuesday, in case the Pelican moved to a Monday finish, and they were running $560. A weekly rental car that used to run $200 is now more than $300. She estimates most players who stay in a hotel – Finkelstein relies on host housing – have at least $3,000 a week in expenses after paying their caddie.
“And that’s on the cheap side,” she said.
Caroline Inglis, who currently ranks 99th on the CME points list and 98th on the money list ($164,798) estimates that she has spent six figures on her team and travel through 16 events.
“I just had a month off and have this one (Pelican), and then I’m going to have four months off,” said Inglis, referring to the LPGA’s 2023 schedule that begins with limited-field events. “I feel like I spent so much money this year, it’s unreal.”
Olson notes that the LPGA has about 200 active members and 150 who play a decent-sized schedule every year. Last year, the 100th player on the money list earned $128,647 and the 150th earned $28,305.
Stephanie Meadow says her expenses for the year typically range between $115,000 to $125,000, including what it costs to pay her team. That’s staying in average hotels and with a couple of host families.
“This is the best tour in the world, you’re practically top 100 in the world at what you do,” said Meadow, “and there’s not another job out there (in the top 100) that you wouldn’t be making a living enough to buy an average-sized house.”
Not to mention quality healthcare and retirement investments.
What’s the solution?
The Pelican announced a $3.25 million purse for next year’s event – renamed The ANNIKA driven by Gainbridge – making it the highest purse for a non-major event outside of CME. The new JM Eagle LA Championship at Wilshire will offer a $3 million purse next year, double the money from 2022. The new Mizuho Americas Open hosted by Michelle Wie West will have a purse of $2.75 million.
(It’s worth noting, however, that last year the LPGA had both the Gainbridge LPGA and the Pelican LPGA for a total of $3,750,000. They’ve combined now into one event for a purse of $3,250,000.)
More premium events like these is the first goal, said LPGA commissioner Mollie Marcoux Samaan. New events on the LPGA schedule must start with a minimum $2 million purse.
“We’re also looking at other opportunities,” she told Golfweek. “Is there a stipend at some event or a minimum that players make by getting into the field?”
This already happens at some of the majors, of course, where at the U.S. Women’s Open, those who missed the cut at Pine Needles made $8,000, double what was given last year.
“Listen, it’s a meritocracy,” said Marcoux Samaan. “It’s so hard to win out here and it’s so hard to make the cut, that we feel like those players should be significantly compensated for achieving that goal. But are there other ways that we can help players out?”
Minjee Lee poses with the trophy after winning the 77th U.S. Women’s Open at Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club on June 5, 2022 in Southern Pines, North Carolina. (Photo: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Last week, the DP World Tour announced that players would be guaranteed a minimum of $150,000 against their earnings next season, provided they make at least 15 appearances. The move comes amidst the ongoing threat of LIV Golf and its guaranteed payouts.
The PGA Tour announced a similar program back in August that guarantees $500,000 up front for rookies and those returning to the Tour. Everyone else who doesn’t meet the threshold at the season’s end will be paid the difference.
“If you look, we’re now the only main tour that isn’t offering some sort of compensation,” said Ashleigh Buhai. “It makes a huge difference, and we are the only spot that you’re not guaranteed money.”
When asked if the LPGA could provide a similar program, Marcoux Samaan said, “I think, again, we have to just look at where we are in the moment and look at what we can do. Our goal is to provide as much as we can to the players.”
Olson would like to see each player in an LPGA field be guaranteed $3,000 up front. Those who make the cut will earn at least an additional $4,000.
Where does that money come from?
One option, Olson believes, is to change the purse distribution. Currently, the winner at most LPGA events receives 15 percent of the purse. After that, six percent of the purse goes toward the tour’s operational costs.
That leaves 79 percent for everyone else who makes the cut. (The U.S. Women’s Open gave 18 percent of the winner and CME will give the winner roughly 29 percent.)
“I think we have to go down to 12 percent,” said Olson, “or take from that top 10 and be able to feed that into the bottom ranks.”
Top players have multiple sources of revenue, she notes. In addition to prize winnings, they get into limited-field events, are offered appearance fees on other tours, and more corporate sponsorship opportunities.
“I would say the top 30 have opportunities for great sponsorships,” said Olson. “Beyond that, I think it’s pretty iffy.”
Olson believes a change to the purse distribution could be a short-term solution until all LPGA tournaments are above $2.5 million.
A general view of the Race for the CME Globe Money Box on the 18th green prior to the LPGA CME Group Tour Championship at Tiburon Golf Club on November 14, 2018 in Naples, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
If stipends are given out, Stacy Lewis would like to see some additional responsibilities be added so that players do more to help out events.
Lewis, a former No. 1, concedes that because of her early success, she never worried about money. On one hand, she said, it’s difficult to think about giving a stipend when players are competing for more money than ever before. But, on the other hand, it’s a top-heavy money list.
“I do think we need to look at our purse distribution,” said Lewis.
Karen Stupples knows what it’s like to win a major championship. But, prior to that, she also knew what it felt like to be down to her last $500. Stupples likes a model that encourages players to fight for their money. To grit it out. The way she sees it, the struggle is part of the process. Everyone has an opportunity to grow and improve.
“Part of playing professional golf, what you signed up for,” said Stupples, “is that you have to play well in order to make it.”
As Olson has canvased her peers on the subject, some top players have understandably shown resistance. “Play better” is a common refrain when it comes to money problems, and Olson believes there will always be about 20 people who are firmly against a change that would take away money from top finishers.
Count top American Nelly Korda among them.
“I feel like that would be a step back in women’s sports, lowering the prize money,” said Korda, pointing out that PGA Tour winners receive 18 percent of the purse.
Lydia Ko, however, said that while taking some money away from the winner sounds shocking, she understands why something like that might need to happen.
“I think we’re moving in the right trend of things,” said Ko, “but I do think it does probably need to be a little bit dispersed better.”
Three-time winner Gaby Lopez thrives when conditions are hard, when it feels like her back is against the wall.
“I like the challenge,” she said. “I also understand my peers, like they said, they need to make a living.”
Ryann O’Toole floated the idea that players get paid for participating in the pro-am. Others wondered if moving the cutline from 70 and ties to 60 or 65 and ties might help. Meadow, an accounting major, said she’d need to get out a spreadsheet to weigh the options.
“At the end of the day we’re entertainers,” said O’Toole, “but we sometimes don’t get paid for our entertainment.”
Olson has been ranked as high as seventh on the money list (2020) and as low as 119th (2016) and has seen many of her peers come and go over the years. One friend who walked away due to finances had credit card debt that took over five years to pay off.
A native of Oxbow, North Dakota, Olson especially has a soft spot for those who, like her, grew up in a small town with a short season. She’d like to see them have more of a fighting chance.
“We want to create a place where women can pursue their dream of professional golf,” said Olson, “and we don’t want to see that dream become a nightmare … where they have to spend the next five years recovering from their dream.”