The Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia, in the United States, will host the 78th Masters tournament in April, but this is only the second since it allowed females to join the golf club. But no women will participate in the international major. Instead, they will compete in the Kraft Nabisco Championship, which will take place a week earlier in California and is in its 41st year.
Gender-equality is not much more than a concept in golf, which takes pride in its staunch adherence to tradition. South Africa is one of the countries making strides to close that gap. This year February saw the launch of the Sunshine Ladies Tour, a six-tournament event, each of which carries prize money of R100,000 ($9,430). But is it enough to reignite the game among women who are oft-ignored?
“Women’s professional golf in South Africa was in a wasteland since 2009,” says Margie Whitehouse, the chairperson of the Women’s Professional Golf Association of South Africa (WPGA).
Prior to 2009, the only tournament on the women’s golf calendar was the South Africa Women’s Open, which did not have status abroad and was canceled in 2010 and 2011. When the WPGA elected a new board in 2012, they sought to change that.
“We acknowledged that our members and aspirant professionals were being forced to seek a competitive platform abroad. We set about, immediately, to create a local competitive platform,” says Whitehouse.
The Women’s Open, which is part of the European Tour schedule, is one half of how women are gaining ground on the golf course. The other is the new Sunshine Tour. Like its male counterpart, it too will serve as a qualifying event for the season-ending Investec Cup, a marquee tournament on the local golfing calendar. The men’s event has prize money of R6 million ($562,000), which according to Selwyn Nathan, the Executive Director of the Sunshine Tour, “heightens the sense of camaraderie in the South African golf community”.
For women, the purse is R300,000 ($28,000), but Investec see it as a way to support the fairer sex.
“By incorporating a ladies element into the Investec Cup 2014, we are indicating support for the commitment, enthusiasm, skill and personal development that is required to succeed in this sporting code. Women’s sport is an uncluttered market commercially, and we look forward to showcasing some of South Africa’s top female golfers as athletes and individuals,” says Janet Larsen, Investec’s Head of Marketing.
Lee-Anne Pace is a Mossel Bay-born golfer, who won three tournaments on the Ladies European Tour in 2013 and was named the European Tour’s Player of the Year for a second time. She hopes to bring more success home to grow the local game.
“It is vital for South African golfers to support the Sunshine Ladies Tour and to help it become a successful and strong competition. As it grows, it will get more money and attract players from overseas. For now it’s just great that there is an opportunity for South African players to compete at home,” she says.
Like many South African golfers, Pace, who started caddying for her father as a teenager to earn pocket money, had to leave South Africa, the country of her birth, to kick-start her golf career. She received a scholarship from the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma and turned professional after representing the institution. Soon, she hopes to receive her full card for American tournaments, called the LPGA. With that will come increased earnings and the opportunity to compete in events such as the Kraft Nabisco Championship, both prestigious and lucrative.
She does not want to focus on the pay discrepancy too much.
“The men earn more money than us, but you know that going into this career. It should not really make a difference to how you approach the game. I am not too worried about the male-female inequality in golf. I am just enjoying myself and my career. I love golf and the challenges it holds and to be able to do it for a living is such a privilege.” For now, she is perfecting her swing.