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We’re constantly reminded that professional sports are a business. Don’t get too attached to any players, we’re told, because they could be playing for a different team at any given moment.
For individual sports like golf, the calculus is slightly different. But recent events serve as a solid reminder that — for better and for worse — money always matters.
We’ll start with the “for better” part. This weekend’s U.S. Women’s Open — the second major of the season — is littered with past, present and future stars competing for their share of a record $10 million US purse, more than double last year’s total of $4.8 million. By comparison, the 2021 men’s U.S. Open handed out $12.5 million, including $2.25 million to winner Jon Rahm. The winner of the women’s event this weekend will walk away with $1.8 million.
The remaining difference prompted World No. 3 Lydia Ko of New Zealand to point out that “there’s still a ways to go” to achieve pay equality in golf. But at the very least, the increase in prize money might have helped produce an extremely intriguing field.
There’s the GOAT, Annika Sorenstam, playing her first U.S. Women’s Open since 2008 at age 51 after winning the senior (50-plus) version of the event by eight strokes last season. The Swede owns a trio of U.S. Women’s Open championships, including in 1996 at Pine Needles — the same North Carolina course as this year’s tournament. The other blast from the past is Michelle Wie West, the former child star who owns a U.S. Women’s Open championship of her own. Wie West, 32, plans to step back from professional golf after this weekend. Both Sorenstam and Wie West are currently projected to miss the cut.
There’s no shortage of present stars, either. Sixth-ranked Lexi Thompson is looking to bounce back after blowing a five-stroke lead on the final day of competition last year, while reigning Olympic champion Nelly Korda is playing her first event since March after surgery for a blood clot. Canada’s Brooke Henderson, ranked 11th, is also back following a lengthy illness absence. Meanwhile, 19-year-old phenom Rose Zhang, who just won the NCAA individual championship and became the first student-athlete to sign an endorsement deal with Adidas, is competing at Pine Needles as well.
As of our publish time, 52nd-ranked American Mina Harigae was leading the tournament 9-under through 36 holes. Henderson was hovering around the projected 1-over cut line early in her second round, while fellow Canadians Maude-Aimée Leblanc and amateur Lauren Kim were likely to miss the cut. Keep track of the updated leaderboard here.
The good vibes on the women’s tour stand in stark contrast to the men, who just witnessed a small exodus of players to a breakaway circuit backed by the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia.
The LIV Golf series’ first tournament goes head-to-head with the Canadian Open next weekend, and the field announced this week is made up of no-names, washed-up former stars and… Dustin Johnson, the 37-year-old son-in-law of Wayne Gretzky currently ranked 13th on the PGA Tour.
Johnson’s inclusion was a stunning turn of events after he pledged loyalty to the PGA Tour just a few months ago. But the South Carolina native’s move is also explainable: The Telegraph reported Johnson would be paid about $125 million US just to join the start-up league. The purse for each of the eight LIV events sits at $25 million, to boot. The money more than makes up for his lost RBC endorsement that followed his sudden withdrawal from next weekend’s Canadian Open, which he won in 2018. Still, explainable doesn’t mean defensible. DJ is about to get paid, but given Saudi Arabia’s human-rights record, the money might as well be splattered in blood.
The PGA Tour has threatened LIV defectors with a sliding punishment scale including lifetime bans. Apparently undeterred, Johnson is poised to take the money and run.
Phil Mickelson was the biggest name involved with the breakaway circuit until author Alan Shipnuck released an interview in February where Lefty acknowledged he was willing to overlook the country’s alleged crimes “because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates.” The 51-year-old chose not to defend his PGA Championship last month, but also didn’t appear as part of the LIV field, though some spots in the 48-man competition remain open.
In the meantime, a fairly strong field is competing at the Memorial tournament, where Canadians Mackenzie Hughes and Corey Conners are both positioned to contend into the weekend. Follow the live leaderboard here.