Rebecca Lee-Bentham finished her morning round at Friday’s Canadian Pacific Women’s Open not knowing if she would make the cut, and it was going to be an anxious few hours as she waited to find out.
A select few top LPGA players at London Hunt and Country Club this week have made more than $1-million in prize money this season, such as Stacy Lewis, Inbee Park and Lydia Ko. But for many newcomers to the LPGA Tour who battle to make cuts, pay bills and keep their full-time LPGA Tour cards, life is a different story.
“This is my living and making cuts is how I feed myself, so every stroke matters to me for sure,” said Lee-Bentham, a 22-year-old Canadian in her third season on the Tour, who was even-par through two days and eventually missed the cut.
While 15 Canadians started the tournament, four made the cut: Jennifer Kirby, Sue Kim and amateurs Jennifer Ha and Brooke Henderson.
Only players in the top 125 on the official money list at season’s end maintain cards for next year. The top 80 players make the priority list, meaning they are first in line for playing LPGA events. Lee-Bentham was 80th last year after earning $118,441.00 (U.S.). This year, she sits 105th on the money list, having earned $48,525 through 15 events, with a few months to go in the season. But there’s no payout this week.
Kirby is the low Canadian so far in London, sitting at five-under 139 after an even-par 72 on Friday. It’s a big prize-money opportunity for a player who has made the cut in seven of her 15 LPGA tournaments this year and made $48,636, good for 110th on the money list. She is currently tied for 24th on the leaderboard, which, for example, would pay out $22,695 and help her standing on that list if she can maintain it through Sunday.
While prize money is far more equitable for men and women in pro tennis, that is not yet the case in golf, although the number of LPGA events is growing. While individual tournament purses on the PGA Tour are between $5-million and $9-million each, on the LPGA Tour they range from $1-million to $3.2-million. The winner in London this weekend earns $337,500, while the 70th-place finisher – the last one to get prize money – receives $4,585.
“The hardest thing out here is trying to be consistent throughout the entire year,” the 23-year-old Kirby said. “That’s tough because there are a lot of four-week stretches where you play a lot, and you don’t have much time to work on your game, so it’s a constant work in progress while you’re on the road.”
If a player falls out of the top 125 on the money list, she must go back to qualifying school to re-earn her LPGA Tour card. Some in the 100-125 range go back to Q School as well, hoping they can earn a better standing on the Tour.
“We tell our players in their first year on Tour, your objective is strictly to keep your card,” said J.S. Kang, a Canadian-born agent who represents world No. 1 Stacy Lewis for U.S-based firm Sterling Sports Management. “Tour life is a lot to handle. You may play in anywhere from six to 13 different countries in a year, you have to pay the caddy every week and fit in your workouts. When you put yourself up against this level of competition, you really see what you’re made of.”
The typical payout for caddies in the LPGA is 10 per cent of winnings if the golfer wins the tournament, 7 per cent for a top-10 finish or 5 per cent for any entrant that makes the cut. Golfers who don’t make the cut – and typically don’t win anything – still have to pay the caddy’s weekly fee – roughly $400 for a local caddy or upward of $1200 for a regular Tour caddy.
Tim Carneval, director at MAI Wealth Advisors in Cleveland, does taxes and budgeting for professional athletes in football, baseball, tennis and golf. He tells young players on the LPGA Tour to budget about $40,000 to 50,000 in golf-related expenses per year. He says higher-ranked players spend an average of between $80,000 and 100,000 a year, as their costs for agents, coaches and trainers grow. Unlike in most other pro sports entities, LPGA players also shoulder the load for their own health insurance. Carvenal says to have a comfortable year, an LPGA player needs to win about $150,000.
“The top 20-30 players have nice merchandising contracts, so they’ll pay their agents 15 to 20 per cent of that deal, but there are very few below that on the money list that would have a merchandising deal,” Carneval said. “Someone like Michelle Wie may fly private, but many just coming up travel together and share expenses. They may drive rather than fly or do corporate outings on a Monday to make a few extra thousand dollars, share accommodations with other players or some do some caddying. It’s a great living, but when you pull the curtains back and look at it, many people who have their card have a tough time trying to save anything.”
So far at London Hunt and Country, the top contender for the prize money is 24-year-old South Korean golfer So Yeon Ryu, who leads the tournament by a comfortable five strokes with a 15-under 129. She set a course record on Thursday by shooting a nine-under 63, then followed it up with a 66 on Friday. There is a three-way tie for second at 10-under between Sweden’s Anna Nordqvist, American Danielle Kang and South Korean Na Yeon Choi.