Opinion: Former professional golfer Georgina Simpson on the future of women's golf
Having recently retired from playing professional golf on the Ladies European Tour and LPGA Tour (2004) for 15 years, I have mixed feelings about leaving the game in a state that isn’t much better than when I found it.
It’s true that I have made a living from the game for a number of years, but the girls are unfortunately still playing for similar prize funds 15 years on.
With the rate of inflation, flights and general travel expenses all rising, this means that the girls’ profits get less and less each year. Twin that with the difficulty of finding sponsors, especially when we have seen a definite trend away from golf sponsorship across the board.
Big companies are holding less and less Pro-am’s/Am-Am’s and choosing to sponsor quicker, more accessible sports like cycling. The girls really are up against it, and unfortunately if things don’t improve I can envisage a lot of talented girls not being able to continue in the sport they have sacrificed so much for.
I always remember Peter Alliss asking “where are all our talented British women golfers?”, during his commentary of the Ricoh Women’s British Open a few years ago. Well I’ll tell you where they are Peter, most of them have been driven out of the game because of the lack of any funding outside of amateur golf.
For years England has been one of the few countries that doesn’t support the transition of their top amateur players into the professional ranks. Once you turn professional you are completely on your own.
Girls have to find their tour entrance fee and fund 2/3 weeks at tour school in Morocco, which probably equates to around £4,000 just to try and get playing rights on the LET.
To my knowledge, there are still no grants given to young girls in their first few years on tour in England. Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Holland, Spain and Australia all offer either financial support, or some form of help from a governing body. Whether that is access to winter training camps or access to services such as physios and psychologists.
Therefore if you don’t come out winning like Charley Hull or Holly Clyburn, most English girls have to weigh up their financial situation with their family before they sign up for another year on tour.
I have seen many talented young girls over the years that have had to curtail their careers because they couldn’t afford to carry on.
Most families can help their daughters in the first year and hope they either win enough to carry on or find a sponsor through their respective clubs to help them on their way. If they haven’t found their feet after that, they normally disappear.
The basic truth is that we don’t earn enough to pay for the expense of travelling around the world without sponsorship. Even if you manage to get into the top 40 in Europe, you are not making enough to fund your travel expenses and earn a living.
Unfortunately nowadays the LET tour schedule is more like a World Golf Tour with only 4 full field events in Europe in 2016. Gone are the days when we had 9 weeks in Europe, travelling with cheap airlines from one country to the next, with a chance of making some decent money.
Unfortunately, the extended media coverage at Majors like the Ricoh and Evian portray the women’s game to be in a healthy state. The reality is that most girls playing on the European Tour will not get the chance to play in either tournament as both fields are heavily weighted towards LPGA players.
The top 25 players from the European Order of Merit are automatically exempt into the British Open field of 144, the rest have to monday qualify. This year that meant that out of 21 English LET players, only 9 played in the Ricoh.
At Evian on the other hand you have to be a tournament winner on the European Tour to have a chance to play in the event. Last year that meant that 4 English players got to play at Evian. This leaves the majority of the LET players playing for minimum prize funds of E200,000 and maximum E500,000 all too similar to when I started out 15 years ago!
The LET organization has struggled in the past and has to take some responsibility for not growing the sport during this time. When Ivan Khodabakhsh took over as CEO 3 years ago I thought he would be able to bring in some much needed sponsors and value to the tour. I think he would agree that the task he undertook was immense and 3 years on, we are finally starting to see the fruits of his labour.
I do hope that the LET goes from strength to strength, and that the girls who have dedicated themselves to the sport get a chance to be rewarded for their amazing talents. I also hope that the recent merger of golf’s male & female amateur governing bodies into one governing body of England Golf will help the women’s game tremendously.
I would love to see Sport England money feeding through to the early stages of anyone’s professional career. Then talented players who have represented England throughout their amateur careers can be supported when they need it the most, in the transition to the professional ranks. I would like to think that golf’s return to the Olympics might open a few more doors on that front in the future.
Georgia Hall was my little sister on tour in 2015 (an LET initiative to help rookies by twinning them with a more experienced player), and sat on a crowded bus in Delhi towards the end of the year she asked me if it had all been worthwhile. Obviously experiencing her first year on tour and seeing how difficult it is to make a living out there, a very sensible 19-year-old girl had asked a question that I had never stopped to ask myself.
Some months on from that now, and in a job I love because of my playing career, I can say YES to Georgia, it has all been worthwhile.
However, I am sure that I am one of the lucky ones. Knowing the sacrifices I have made along the way makes me determined to help improve the future of women’s golf for all the girls like Georgia who are following in my footsteps.