A walk toward growth: Success of Nelly Korda, improved marketing could help increase LPGA audience

Golfer Robyn Choi walks toward the third green of Seville Golf and Country Club, which serves as one of the 25 LPGA tournaments to be played in the U.S. in 2024 out of the 37 announced at the beginning of the season. (Photo by Maxwell Williams/Cronkite News)

GILBERT – With talented golfers reaching new levels of success in the sport, the LPGA’s goal is to grow with every tournament. Slowly but surely, women’s golf has gained worldwide recognition since the LPGA launched 74 years ago, and it hopes to increase its popularity at a time of greater attention to female athletes.

Take Nelly Korda, the world’s top-ranked golfer on both the Rolex and CME leaderboards. The American has won five consecutive tournaments, including an impressive 20-under-par finish at the Ford Championship at Seville Golf and Country Club in Gilbert in late March.

“When you have star power like that, and (Korda) has been around for a while now, so many more people are taking notice of what she is doing,” LPGA Properties Vice President Scott Wood said.

Talented golfers like Korda can help earn additional viewership for women’s golf. However, many players believe that there is still room to improve the current state of the sport.

It is no secret that the association’s nine commissioners have had differing ideas about the best marketing strategy for the sport throughout the LPGA’s history.

The 1980s was a decade that saw the physical appearance of LPGA golfers being flaunted as the main event, as opposed to the on-course quality of play.

At the center was Australian golfer Jan Stephenson.

In 1985, Dunlop Slazenger Group Americas, headed by the then-chairman Dave Branon, ran a campaign that featured Stephenson almost completely nude lying in a bathtub filled entirely with golf balls.

The infamous photoshoot sparked plenty of discourse about the direction that the LPGA wanted to approach, but the commissioner at the time, Ray Volpe, doubled down on the stunt. USA Today reported that Volpe told Stephenson, “I’m a man. I know what is attractive.”

Additionally, the worldwide nature of the sport’s biggest stars has been a blessing and a curse. Certain countries, specifically in Asia, see fans flocking to see their favorite female golfers, yet the feeling is not always mutual for fans living in the United States.

Historically, the LPGA has sought to bring in viewers on linear platforms with just five weekends out of the year visible on networks like ABC, NBC, CBS and FOX, and the majority of coverage being shown on the Golf Channel.

“It’s definitely more competitive out here right now, and there are more girls from Asia, from all over the world trying to play on the tour,” Xiyu “Janet” Lin said after finishing a round at the Ford Championship. (Photo by Maxwell Williams/Cronkite News)

“It’s definitely more competitive out here right now, and there are more girls from Asia, from all over the world trying to play on the tour,” Xiyu “Janet” Lin said after finishing a round at the Ford Championship. (Photo by Maxwell Williams/Cronkite News)

Former commissioner Michael Whan recognized that so much time devoted to the Golf Channel could be problematic for getting new eyeballs on the sport since the audience is already committed golf fans.

Chinese golfer Xiyu “Janet” Lin has been competing in the LPGA since 2014 and has two top-10 finishes this year.

During her tenure on the tour, Lin says that while the overall number of fans has increased a lot over the years, her fans are not exactly spread out evenly. She joked that while she definitely has fans in the United States, she is “more of a princess in China.”

For this reason, Lin was glad that the tour was able to return to playing tournaments in China recently – like the Blue Bay tournament on Hainan Island and the Buick LPGA Shanghai tournament – following the LPGA’s hiatus during COVID-19 protocol.

Paula Reto, 33, an experienced golfer who has been competing in the LPGA for a decade and represented South Africa in the 2016 Olympics, said there is little support for young female golfers in her country for a number of reasons.

Reto acknowledged that professionals on tour have a lot of opportunity to promote the game, and added that golfers like herself advocating in areas that are less familiar with the sport could play a major role in the growth of women’s golf.

She also touched on a more difficult subject that surrounds the sport, which is the cost of participating. Reto feels that there is a lot of talent that goes undiscovered within underserved communities.

“(Golf) is still sort of a rich sport,” Reto said. “If you are wealthy and you are born into golf, maybe you are more prone to play it.”

One particular aspect that Reto wished was more prevalent at the time when she was first learning the sport was the encouragement to play golf in schools. For Reto, donating equipment to jump-start programs at schools could be the answer to promoting a more inclusive culture around women’s golf everywhere.

However, Reto is not the only player focused on growing the sport globally. Lin, too, sees a promising future for women’s golf.

“I think both China and the U.S. now have good numbers of junior players playing … I met a couple of them and they’re very talented kids. They all have really bright futures,” Lin said.

One way that younger audiences are getting exposed to the sport is in-person attendance at tournaments. At the Ford Championship in Gilbert in late March, many fans of all ages took in the sunny, spring weather in Arizona.

“We’re used to going to the Phoenix Open and we’ve been to a couple other PGA events, but this is nice,” Arizona resident David Duckwiler said after attending his first LPGA event at the Ford Championship with his wife and two daughters. “It’s relaxed, the players are accessible. It’s a nice vibe.”

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The younger of the two daughters, Ryan, was especially impressed with the talent level of the players and enjoyed the dedication, noting that “even after they play, they’re still practicing.”

Wood began his time with the LPGA in 2015 as the tournament director for the Founders Cup when it was hosted in Phoenix at the Wildfire Golf Club. As someone who spent time living in the Valley with his family, he believes that the Arizona fan atmosphere is hard to match.

“To me there’s no better spot for golf than Phoenix, Scottsdale and the surrounding area of the Valley,” Wood said.

Lilia Vu, who has won four LPGA tour events since her rookie season in 2019, including last year’s Chevron Championship, thrived off the energy of the fans while competing in a difficult third round at the Ford Championship. That day featured wind speeds so high that a small fence near the media tent nearly toppled over moments before she appeared for a post-round interview.

“Every hole someone wants a signature, and that’s just crazy,” Vu said. “I think people are taking women’s golf more seriously.”

Commissioner Mollie Marcoux Samaan emphasized the importance of fans just before the start of the first LPGA tournament of 2024 in an interview with NBC Golf.

“From our perspective, we’re really digging in on the fans,” Marcoux Samaan said. “We always have the players and partners at the center of our equation, but also this year I think you’re going to see a lot of fan growth at the tournaments, (from) those following us on socials, through the viewership.”

While both Marcoux Samaan and Wood are highly focused on improving these aspects of women’s golf for the current season, Wood said he is “working on a lot of things right now” surrounding the 2025 season, which will mark the 75th anniversary of the LPGA. In the same conversation, Wood mentioned the importance of the 13 influential women who founded the organization all those years ago.

Although he was unwilling to announce specific details, he predicts that announcements will be made within the next six months about special events that honor the highly anticipated milestone.

Many can agree that the encouragement of youth development within women’s golf is an important aspect of expansion, but is there enough money awarded for financial stability even at the highest levels?

Increasing the prize purses has been a goal explicitly expressed by the LPGA, and while players greatly appreciate the progress that has been made, some feel that there is still a long road ahead.

“We still have a big gap with men’s (golf), but the gap was even bigger before,” Lin said.

Lin specifically referenced the 2023 U.S. Women’s Open, which was the first LPGA tour event to boast a purse of $10 million, mentioning that not long ago the same event awarded about half that amount.

One of Nelly Korda’s five consecutive victories came at the Ford Championship at Seville Golf and Country Club in Gilbert in late March. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

One of Nelly Korda’s five consecutive victories came at the Ford Championship at Seville Golf and Country Club in Gilbert in late March. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Wood said that acquiring big-name sponsors for tournaments is the primary contributor to the size of the purses, with title sponsors like Ford and Chevron footing the bill in exchange for quality visibility in the very names of the competitions.

In addition to sponsors, Wood said that other avenues of LPGA revenue like deals for media rights “have an impact down the road on the overall health and financial stability of the tour.”

This past weekend the Chevron Championship, won by Korda, served as the first major tournament of the season and featured a purse of $5.2 million.

Wood said that the “biggest growth” has been the money awarded to players. Yet, comparing the figures to the dollar amounts for the men playing at this April’s Masters Tournament where Scottie Sheffler brought home a first-place paycheck of $3.6 million, it is clear a large disparity still exists.

“It used to be, for the middle and bottom half of the players on tour, hard to make a living out here, and then it really changed I think the last three years,” Lin said.

While promoting and expanding the LPGA is important to many of the players on tour, Vu’s message to younger players serves as a reminder that golf can impact the lives of many, not just those hoping to play at the highest level.

“I just hope (the next generation) enjoys the game,” Vu said. “Golf isn’t just for competing. It’s for everything. You can play with your family, you can play with friends. It’s just an all around great sport.”

Wood’s two daughters, who are in their early teens, often hear a similar sentiment from their dad.

“What I try to instill in them is that golf is a lifetime game,” Wood said. “It’s multigenerational so they can play with their friends, they can play with their grandparents, they can play with my wife and I.”

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Maxwell Williams expects to graduate in Spring 2026 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in Spanish linguistic studies. Williams has written for the East Valley Tribune.