The LPGA needs its stars to play like stars in Majors

Lydia Ko, 2023 Chevron Championship,Mandatory Credit: Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports
Lydia Ko, 2023 Chevron Championship,Mandatory Credit: Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports /

The LPGA is to be applauded for its efforts to increase the profile – and by extension the exposure and profitability – of its five Major championships.

Its recent efforts have included significant upgrades to the quality of courses that will host those Majors. The Women’s Open will be played at Pebble Beach this June, and at Oakmont in 2028. The Women’s PGA will travel to Baltusrol.

That’s all welcome and good. But for the LPGA to really make strides in enhancing interest in its Majors, it’s going to need the cooperation of the association’s stars.

And that cooperation must first and foremost involve playing better.

You could see the problem unfold at this past week’s first Major, the Chevron Championship at Houston.

Superficially, viewership data for Sunday’s final round was encouraging, and Tour promoters were quick to promote those figures, however superficial. The raw numbers showed an average of 941,000 viewers for Sunday’s final round, up substantially from the 349,000 figure for the same event in 2022.

But those figures need to be taken in context. Sunday’s final round was televised on NBC, a big platform upgrade from previous iterations of what until 2022 was called the ANA Inspiration. That version of the tournament never made it beyond the viewing confines of the Golf Channel.

That change alone is a big part of the reason for the TV audience increase.

But the viewers who tuned in Sunday saw barely any of the Tour’s name-brand stars. Of players in contention – and who thus commanded almost all the TV face time – only Nelly Korda qualified as a known commodity.

Most of the Tour’s market-worthy names – Lexi Thompson, Lydia Ko, Minjee Lee, and Jennifer Kupcho to name four – missed the cut. Of the cut survivors, none aside from Nelly Korda were ever in contention. Her sister, Jessica Korda, tied for 28th

Jessica wasn’t alone in dodging the limelight. Ariya Jutanugarn tied for 14th, Brooke Henderson finished 23rd, Danielle Kang tied for 28th, I.G. Chun was 18th and J.Y. Ko tied for ninth. All of those players as well as the big names who missed the cut have the potential for eyeball-engaging play; none of them delivered it.

Of the top 20 players in the LPGA’s Rolex World Rankings entering play at the Chevron, five missed the cut entirely and five others finished 23rd or worse.

From that list of the world’s 20 best, only Nelly Korda, J.Y. Ko, Atthaya Thitikul, and H.J. Kim finished within five strokes of the champion. That champion was Lilia Vu, a little-known 25-year-old American whose previous best finish in a Major was a tie for 10th at the 2022 Women’s PGA. On Sunday Vu won a playoff over Angel Yin, who remains winless in eight LPGA Tour seasons.

Others rounding out the top eight were A. Lim Kim, Atthaya Thitikul, Albane Valenzuela, Amy Yang and Allisen Corpuz. Yang can claim four LPGA victories, all four of which came in events played in Asia. Kim won the 2020 U.S. Women’s Open, and Thitikul won a couple of minor events last year.

That’s the entire resume of that leadership group.

You can also assess the quality of the Chevron leaderboard by looking at recent Major champions, but the results will be the same. Of the five 2022 Major champions, none finished higher than T18, and two – Kupcho and Lee – missed the cut.

Going back to 2019, 17 different competitors have won LPGA Majors.

Of whom 14 played at the Chevron. From those 14, only Nelly Korda, A Lim Kim, and J.Y. Ko finished top 10 at the Chevron. Five missed the cut, and the other six finished outside the top 15.

It’s great for the LPGA to celebrate the increase in eyeballs, even if it was largely a product of finally after all these years getting this Major’s final rounds on network TV. It’s also praiseworthy to place its marquee events on marquee-worthy courses, something that has not generally been the case.

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But if the women’s Tour is truly going to ramp up its public attention, what it needs more than anything is for its stars to play like stars. That didn’t happen in Houston.

The Tour’s next Major stop is June 25 at Baltusrol for the Women’s PGA. The LPGA needs for Thompson, Lydia Ko, Kupcho, and both Korda sisters – not just one — to perform as contenders.