The Koreans may be missing but 2020 remains a big year for women's golf

Concern over whether majors retain their sheen when big names are absent is offset in this coronavirus-hit year

Even if high hurdles associated with sporting events is now an assumed normal, women’s professional golf is about to enter a run in which nervousness is inevitable. The welcome return of the finest female players in the game is offset in part by the knowledge that the coming weeks will throw up tests far removed from drives and bunker shots.

On Friday, the LPGA Tour will resume with its Drive On Championship in Toledo. Next week sees the Marathon Classic take place, also in Ohio. In theory – save the appearance of pro-ams at the second of those tournaments – this isn’t an altogether different scenario as the one encountered by the PGA Tour since its June restart. No spectators will be at either tournament and Covid-19 testing will be commonplace.

The deeper complications come thereafter; the Scottish Open, co-sanctioned between the LPGA and Ladies European Tour, starts on 13 August. The newly rebranded Women’s Open will tee off at Royal Troon a week later. Those who wish to stay the course will then revert to the United States, for the Walmart Championship. Charter flights and biosecure bubbles, which must exist in Scotland, can only have a certain element of control when this mass movement is considered.

Quarantine exemptions for athletes render this situation more straightforward for golfers than it otherwise may have been. Georgia Hall and Charley Hull opted to stay in England, where they have competed in a series backed by Justin Rose, rather than embark on transatlantic travel when restarting their year.

Others have clear concerns: Ko Jin-young and Park Sung-hyun - No 1 and No 3 in the world respectively – will not play in the first four LPGA competitions at least. “Due to concerns about the Covid-19 situation in the UK, Ko is not planning to play at the Women’s Open,” Hyomin Han, Ko’s manager, told the Golf Channel. “She is hopeful about returning to the US to play in the LPGA but does not have any specific plans or dates in mind yet. We are waiting to see if the Covid-19 situation in the US improves. She is remaining in Korea at the moment to avoid exposure to the virus.”

In fact, a glance at the Women’s Open field – which has 114 of 144 spots filled – is for now notable for the minimal Korean presence. Kim Sei-young, world No 6, Kim Hyo-joo, the No 10 and Ryu So-yeon, twice a major winner, will not be seen in Ayrshire.

Koreans have won 19 of the last 39 majors. International travel restrictions, and fears such as those expressed by Han place umpteen high-profile female golfers in a horrible position. Unlike the elite of the men’s game, they need not and do not set up base in Florida at the earliest opportunity.

Any concern over whether major championships are worthy of the name when leading competitors do not enter is offset in this situation by a greater good. This should have been a marquee year for women’s professional golf as the LPGA stepped in to assist its ailing equivalent in Europe, with players instead consigned to months of frustration.

Ko Jin-young, the world No 1, has opted against competing in the Women’s Open and her manager says: ‘We are waiting to see if the Covid-19 situation in the US improves.’
Ko Jin-young, the world No 1, has opted against competing in the Women’s Open and her manager says: ‘We are waiting to see if the Covid-19 situation in the US improves.’ Photograph: Seokyong Lee/Penta Press/Shutterstock

This was especially the case for Ladies European Tour golfers, who have not had a mainstream event since Alice Hewson memorably collected €30,000 for winning on her first professional start 18 weeks ago in South Africa. Rose is due immense credit for stepping in to fund seven events but £5,000 first prizes supply a context all of their own.

Under the leadership of Mike Whan, the LPGA has been an undoubted commercial success story. His sentiment emphasises that. “We took a tough shot,” said Whan of the coronavirus’s impact. “Covid-19 is going to definitely rattle us in 2020 but we are not searching for funding and we could live through a 2021 Covid if it becomes a ’21 Covid like ’20. I wouldn’t want to. I’m just making sure that resources-wise when things are back to normal we can spend on this business like we would have spent in the past. We are not threatened. We are not dangerously low. It’s just tough to see a figure in red at the bottom of a spreadsheet.”

There are, however, illuminating human tales beyond raw numbers. Georgia Oboh, Nigeria’s first golfer on the Ladies European Tour, has been handed a Scottish Open invite. “It will give me invaluable experience as I work towards achieving my dream of being the first Nigerian to win on the professional golf circuit,” said the 19-year-old.

Those behind the Scottish Open are due a special debt of gratitude to the main sponsor, Aberdeen Standard Investments,which has foregone normal essentials of a sponsorship deal – corporate hospitality and a pro-am – to ensure the tournament goes ahead.

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That AIG extended its deal with the hitherto Women’s British Open further demonstrates a commendable level of corporate support in troubled times. In the US, providing closeup opportunities to sponsors that the PGA Tour cannot has been a fundamental part of the LPGA’s growth. “If we can’t figure out how to play pro-ams, the LPGA is going to have some challenges in 2020 and beyond,” Whan admitted.

Whan and others won’t be short of them as his business swings back into something approaching recognisable form. As breath is held from Toledo to Troon, a sport that was making meaningful steps forward needs things to play out minus serious trouble.

Contributor

Ewan Murray

The GuardianTramp

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