The AIG Women’s Open – that starts on Thursday – is being hosted at this historic venue with a record £6million prize fund, but such is the all-enveloping narrative of the Saudi bid to take over big-time golf, the threat of LIV hangs heavy over this East Lothian coastline.
Greg Norman, the LIV Golf Series chief executive, revealed recently that the Kingdom-funded circuit is eyeing up throwing its billions into the female game, much like it has with the men.
And while it is doubtful that that particular revolution would involve the same scale of investment that has lured the likes of Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka in deals topping £100m, there can be no question that the numbers would still be unprecedented.
What would that mean for the LPGA Tour if it tried to emulate the PGA Tour threat and go into battle with LIV? “It would be crushed,” Annika Sorenstam said.
That is why the great Swede – who has, in the past fortnight, seen countryman Henrik Stenson give up the Ryder Cup captaincy to jump ship for £40m – believes commissioner Molly Marcoux must take the opposite approach to Jay Monahan, her PGA Tour counterpart, and negotiate with Norman, if and when the approach comes.
“Hopefully they have the intention of growing the game and working together with the LPGA,” Sorenstam, the 10-time major-winner told Golfweek, citing the obvious differentials in income and cash reserves. “To crush the LPGA doesn’t do anybody good, history-wise, future-wise, sustainability-wise. There’s so much negativity around this. I think that we need to somehow find a way to get a positive image with all this.”
Marcoux has already indicated that she would take the call and that is hardly a surprise seeing as the LPGA owns half of the Ladies European Tour, which already receives almost £5m annually in sponsorship from Aramco, the oil company owned by the House of Saud.
As for the PR, the fact the females are the poor relations on the fairways would perhaps make coexistence less controversial, with the “need” outflanking the greed. However, Sorenstam thinks that it would be acceptable for a female organization to go into a league with a country with a notorious record of women’s rights abuse.
“That’s maybe one of the reasons we should partner,” said Sorenstam, “to be able to make a difference”.
‘The integrity and history of the game is four rounds and I think it would be a shame for golf to be three’
Inevitably, not everyone has the same opinion on this polarizing issue. Georgia Hall objects to LIV’s 54-hole and shotgun-start format.
“I know there’s a lot of rumors going around, but whether Mollie decides to take a call or not is really not in my field of expertise – I just want to play on the LPGA and LET,” the Englishwoman said.
“But I personally wouldn’t want to have three-round tournaments. The integrity and history of the game is four rounds and I think it would be a shame for golf to be like that for us. At the Women’s Open, everyone tees off one tee. The first tee time is 6.30am, the last one is 3.30pm – that’s the way it’s always been and it brings in elements including weather to the game, and I think that’s something that needs to stay the same.”
Hall tees off at 7.48am alongside Jessica Korda and In Gee Chun and, as the 2018 champion who finished third in 2017 and second last year, she must be rated one of the favorites this week, alongside Lydia Ko, Nelly Korda and Brooke Henderson. The 26-year-old declares herself “thrilled” with Muirfield, one of the great UK links, hosting this major for the first time and she is similarly excited with the hike in prize money.
Granted, the purse bows to the £8.3m of the US Women’s Open and in the quest for gender equality, signposted by R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers, still lags to the extent that it is roughly at the level of the men’s Open 10 years ago . But it is more than twice what it was when Hall won at Lytham four years ago and is a 26 per cent increase on last year.
“Progress in prize funds needs to be commercially sustainable,” Slumbers Told telegraph Sport. “And that is at the top of my list of challenges. A world-class field at a wonderful course for this special major can only assist in that ambition.”