01 Apr 2021 | Professional golf |

A growing force

by Martin Blake

Minjee Lee ANA preview image
Minjee Lee heads the six-strong Australian contingent at the ANA Inspiration. Photo: Getty

As the women's game prepares for its first major of the year in California, LPGA Tour commissioner Mike Whan has begun his farewell tour with excitement about the future. "The future of this game is so female, not just here in America, but all around the world," said Whan, who leaves his post later this year to take up the role as head of the USGA. "Events like this are what matter to these young girls. I don't think, if you said 12 years ago to anybody the future of the game, junior golf, was going to look almost 40 percent female, back when we were in that 13, 14, 15 percent range, that's what I think we should be most proud of, because this is important. "But what we're leaving is more important, and we're leaving this game pretty female. I'm leaving this game a lot more female than when I got here, thanks to a lot of people that made me look good. I'm most proud of that. "I'm really proud of this and the Symetra Tour and the LET (Ladies European Tour) and our 2000 teachers all around the world. But most important thing, I don't think these women will have daughters that will have the experience my mom had trying to join the game in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. They should be proud of that, and we should be proud of that." The ANA Inspiration at Rancho Mirage has a $US5 million purse, but Whan said he would love it to be $10 million. He has achieved monumental improvement for the tour and for the women's game, but he knows all about the frustrating inequities between the men's and women's tours. "This is what we've got today, and we're going to keep building on it," he said. "When I started I think our average major purse was a little less than three (million), and now ... I don't think we have a major under three, and most of our majors are between 4 1/2 and 5 1/2. "It's a battle. It's a struggle. It's one of the reasons, quite frankly, why I'm glad I took the job because, as a male, certainly as a white male, it would have been really easy for me to glide through life and never pay attention to this challenge. "I also raised three boys, not girls. I never thought about, as a father, the future of the game of football or baseball they were playing. I'll never be able to think about sports or lifelike that again because these athletes are in my head and in my life. "So these athletes think about the future of the game. They think about what kind of experience their daughters are going to get in golf. They realise they have to work a little harder for maybe a little less. It's all embarrassing to say as their commissioner, but it's true. We're going to keep fighting to make that truth go away. Currently, we're facing that truth." Six Australians will tee it up this week including rookie professional Gabi Ruffels, 20, who finished in the top 20 last year as an amateur. Ruffels has taken a risk by turning professional without full playing rights, and his relying on sponsor's invitations to try to play her way on to the tour. This week presents a great opportunity for her in that context. Minjee Lee, Sarah Kemp, Su Oh, Hannah Green and Katherine Kirk are all playing, with world No. 10 Lee coming off a T3 finish in her 2021 debut last week in California. Despite her five wins on the main tour and a constant top-10 ranking for the past couple of years, Lee still has not won a major. Her best result in one of the big five tournaments was tied-third at the AIG Women's Open in Scotland last year, and third here in 2017. As for Mike Whan, he's engaged in the search for his replacement. Today he shared a story around his start in the job in 2009, when he met Louise Suggs, one of the LPGA Tour's founders. Suggs told him: 'Kid, keep it simple'. When Whan asked what she meant, she gestured to the players nearby in the lobby: 'Give them a better place to play'. The commissioner wrote those words down on a card from his brief case, and kept it all the while. TV TIMES

Foxtel and Kayo Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday

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