SA Women’s golf: When will the pay, reflect the play?

When the pay reflect the pay? Image of Lejan Lewthwaite
The best male golfer on the PGA held a 69.057 scoring average in 2019, while the leading LPGA golfer shot a comparable 69.062 on average per round. Given this performance parity, female golfers rightfully deserve more opportunities to show that they are as talented as their male counterparts, and they certainly deserve to earn the same. Against this backdrop, a groundswell of support for gender equality in golf is underway across the globe, with significant strides made in 2019 regarding prize money, viewership and participation.


Scoring average of best male golfer on PGA 2019


Scoring average of best female golfer on PGA 2019

A rich South African women's golfing history

South Africa is at the forefront of creating platforms that promote and develop talent in women's golf. For example, significant sponsor support has elevated the global status of the Investec South African Women’s Open (ISAWO). The showpiece event on the Sunshine Ladies Tour is now widely regarded as a world-class national championship tournament that attracts international talent. 

Established by the Women’s PGA of South Africa (WPGA) in 1988, it is the oldest and most prestigious professional women’s golf tournament in South Africa. Iconic local golfers such as Lee-Anne Pace, Ashleigh Simon (Buhai), Mandy Adamson and Barbara Pestana have all won the historic event multiple times. 

The ISAWO leading the way
The ISAWO leading the way

In 2018, it became a co-sanctioned event between the Sunshine Ladies Tour, the WPGA and the Ladies European Tour. Ashleigh Buhai – the only amateur to win the national championship twice – became the first winner of the new-look tournament.

Since then the Sunshine Ladies Tour has attracted more foreign investment, and international player participation has tripled over the last three years. Over 40 foreign players travelled to South Africa in 2019, including a strong field at the season-ending Investec South African Women’s Open. Diksha Dagar, a deaf teenage golfer, won the tournament and became the youngest Indian woman to win on the Ladies European Tour.

Building on this success, the Sunshine Ladies Tour, which celebrates its seventh season in 2020, has increased  the financial incentives for players, with an additional R100,000 for the 2020 Investec Order of Merit winner, and record prize money of nearly R6 million on offer.

R6M record prize money for Sunshine Ladies Tour

The season started at the end of January at King David Mowbray Golf Club with the Cape Town Ladies Open, and concludes in March with the 2020 Investec South African Women’s Open, which will be hosted by the City of Cape Town for the third successive year at the Westlake Golf Course.

A springboard to international opportunities

Investec South African Women’s Open 2020 offers total prize money of approx. R3.5

Significantly, the 2020 edition will offer total prize money of €200,000 (over R3,5000,000). While this remains significantly less than the R17.5 million prize purse offered at the men at the 2020 South African Open, it is an important development because it increases the financial support available to female golfers . 

The 2020 ISAWO also serves as a launchpad to international golfing opportunities for local players.  The champion will earn a Tournament Winner’s Category Exemption on the Ladies European Tour and Sunshine Ladies Tour for the remainder of the 2020 season and the 2021 season, and exemption into two of the five Majors in 2020, specifically the Women’s British Open and the Evian Championship.

Investec-sponsored pro golfer Lejan Lewthwaite affirms that the ISAWO addresses two prolific challenges that face local golfers, namely insufficient opportunities to play at an international level and financial constraints.

"Finances needed to support a pro’s career is an issue. It’s extremely expensive to travel from SA, and not being able to afford to play overseas determines an aspiring pro’s career trajectory."

Lejan Lewthwaite, Investec sponsored pro-golfer

Lewthwaite shares how several female pros suffered premature ends to their careers because they had to find alternative employment to fund their travel while they pursued their playing careers.  “The need to work also obviously impacts their golf. I am blessed that I now receive a great deal of support, but I worked exceptionally hard for that.”

Lewthwaite says her Investec sponsorship helped kickstart her career overseas and supported her progress in international tours. “I also receive support from my family, mentors, coaches, and other sponsors such as clothing, footwear and golf equipment manufacturers, which all goes a long way in helping me become the best golfer I can be.”

Boost exposure to grow the game

While the ISAWO helps to bridge this financial gap, more can be done to make the Sunshine Tour attractive to international players. “If more top pros come and play, our professionals would get more experience and exposure at an international level. They would also see that professional players can earn a living from golf, which I believe would encourage more amateurs to pursue golf as a career,” continues Lewthwaite.

Beyond that, Lewthwaite believes the country is on the right track from a grassroots development perspective. “More female professional golfers are coming through the ranks. With additional recognition for the women's game, such as bigger prizes, and more TV coverage, which would make sponsorship more attractive to corporates and investors, we could realise the full potential of South African women's golf.”

Nicole Garcia
Nicole Garcia, Investec sponsored pro-golfer

It needs to be seen as a sport that is respected worldwide and can open doors, not only on the golf course but also in the business world, then more women will be willing to take up the game at a club level.

stacey bregman
Women's golf in schools

Stacy Bregman, another Investec-sponsored South African pro golfer, believes that introducing golf as a school sport would also serve to expose more young women to the game . And if we keep exposing young players to international-calibre professional women's golf through events like the ISAWO, then Garcia believes more women will take the game seriously.

“We've only had exposure to international women's golf over the last few years. It will, therefore, take time to grow a solid base of female golfers to find those rare talents who can come through the ranks .”
pay parity
A long way to go to achieve pay parity

In the absence of more direct sponsorships, the increased prize purse at the Investec South African Women's Open remains a major source of financial support for players. However, just like major tournaments around the world, there is still a long way to go to match pay in the men's game .

For example, while the US Women's Open made the most significant stride towards equality with the men's game in 2019, with last year's champion receiving a record $1 million as part of a boost in prize money totalling $5.5 million, the US Open men’s championship paid out $12.5 million in total. 

This suggests that much more can and must be done to achieve pay parity. Thankfully, growth in women's golf is taking exponential leaps forward in other ways. 

The 2019 Solheim Cup, for example, was a momentous sporting event that many pundits suggest was equal to The Ryder Cup in terms of sporting entertainment, reach and commercial value. 

The LPGA and the Ladies European Tour also created a joint venture partnership in 2019 to elevate women's professional golf in Europe. 

The resultant 2019 LET schedule, which included 20 official events in 13 different countries, with eight events in Europe, including two major championships, increased playing opportunities with more financial rewards and unlocked additional pathways to the LPGA for the tour’s top performers. 

women's golf
Double the spectacle at combined tournaments

Based on these successes, it is vital that world golf leverages this momentum to further advance women's golf and, eventually, achieve parity with the men's game. 

While increased prize money and TV coverage go a long way to realising this objective, another means to accelerate growth in women's golf has emerged – parallel events, like the Jordan Mixed Open

According to Nielsen's ‘The Rise of Women’s Sport’ report released in 2018, staging men’s and women's events alongside one another is an effective means to boost interest and viewership in professional women’s sports.

A major development in this regard was the Jordan Mixed Open presented by Ayla, which in 2019 became the first full-field mixed professional tournament. And this new tournament structure is gaining momentum, with two significant events taking place in 2020. 

This innovative format was adopted by the co-sanctioned ISPS Handa Vic Open, which took place in February in Australia. Both male and female golfers played alongside each other on the same courses for the same prize money – an equal share of the $3 million purse.

It is these initiatives and other innovative partnerships and platforms that will showcase the incredible talent among local and international female golfers to a broader audience. And with greater exposure, more women will feel empowered by the immense possibilities the sport offers, while also helping to promote and grow female participation in sport.