Professional Golf’s Equality Push

Winning the 2022 Aon Risk Reward Challenge was worth more than the $1 million in prize money Minjee Lee earned from the season-long competition that rewards one PGA Tour and one LPGA player for successfully navigating some of the most strategically challenging holes on tour.

“Winning a significant prize fund is hugely beneficial and it can help provide financial security and independence,” says Lee, who earned $3.8 million in 20 LPGA events last season. “It can also help to cover certain travel expenses that come with being on tour.

“The large prize fund can also help with recognition, and being awarded the same prize fund as the men means you are being looked at on the same level as the men.”

The discrepancies between men’s and women’s sports—whether it’s the NBA and WNBA, PGA Tour and LPGA or MLS and NWSL—have been well documented, but as more fans, corporate partners and investors see the opportunity for growth and interest—not to mention the importance of equality—the levels of inequalities have begun to shrink.

The LPGA announced in November it would award more than $101 million in prize money across 33 events this year, up from the $85.7 million total purse during the 2022 season.

As golf continues to grow and diversify, thanks to a convergence of numerous factors including being a safe, socially distant activity during the height of the coronavirus pandemic to the popularity of golf-entertainment venues like Topgolf and the sport’s utilization of technology, younger players are taking up golf more than ever.

According to the National Golf Foundation, players aged 6-17 experienced the largest percentage gains of all demographic segments in the pandemic era with 3.4 million playing on a course in 2022.

A record 3.3 million people played on a U.S. golf course for the first time last year, with newcomers being more diverse than the sport’s overall participation base—beginners are 45% more likely to be non-white and 35% more likely to be female compared with current golfers, according to the NGF.

This is a trend Lee loves to see.

“I think it ultimately comes down to being able to increase exposure to the game of golf,” the eight-time LPGA winner says about equality in golf. “This is where we need more companies and brands to invest into women’s golf and help it get to the same level as the PGA Tour. If more brands offer equal prize money at their events like Aon has been doing for both the men and women’s game, it could help promote the idea that us as women golfers are just as valuable as the men and hopefully other sponsors will step up in the same way.

“At junior levels, I think mentor programs are always really effective and the more opportunities professionals can create for junior golfers, the better it will be for golf’s next generation.”

While the differences, especially among prize purses still exist on the two pro tours, the PGA Tour and LPGA in February announced a co-sanctioned mixed-team event at the Grant Thornton Invitational from December 8-10 in Naples, Florida.

The 32-player field will be comprised of 16 PGA Tour and 16 LPGA professionals competing for a $4 million purse, not only offering participating golfers equal prize money but also equal visibility in this new format as the three-day tournament will be televised on NBC and Golf Channel.

LPGA commissioner Mollie Marcoux Samaan called the event “an important step forward for golf, women’s golf and the LPGA.”

Corporate sponsors like Grant Thornton and Aon, which began the Risk Reward Challenge in 2019, putting their money where their mouth is sends a message of the change occurring in golf.

The work is far from over, but it’s a positive step in the right direction.

“For Aon to step up in that type of way in the temperature of our environment and the temperature of our world right now where there’s so much talk about it, for them to step up and do something about it, I think that speaks volumes to what they’re about,” says five-time PGA Tour winner Tony Finau. “I love that I’m a partner with an amazing company like that who’s willing to just do it rather than just talk about it. Being a brand ambassador, I’m proud of it that they’re stepping up in that type of way.

“It’s cool that a lot of people are invested in the game—both on the men’s and women’s side—but Aon is stepping up in the way they have to lead the way.”