LPGA sees stronger future with surge in young female golfers

LPGA Women's Golf Demographics Eric Bolte/USA TODAY Sports

LPGA sees stronger future with surge in young female golfers

LPGA Tour

LPGA sees stronger future with surge in young female golfers

Shirley Spork stood next to the first green at Wildfire Golf Club and talked about the day she attended an organizational meeting in 1950 that made her one of the LPGA’s 13 founders.

Sharp as a metal spike at nearly 90, Spork will host a new charity event on April 3 in Palm Desert, Calif. The desire to build and promote still runs deep.

Spork, who played in the 18-hole pro-am on Wednesday at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup, talked about the influx of women who came to golf after World War II, and the difficulties she faced in starting the LPGA Teaching Division to accommodate them.

Babe Zaharias wasn’t just an Olympic hero she read about in a grade school encyclopedia; she was a personal friend.

This trip down memory lane was brought to you by commissioner Mike Whan, who felt the tour wasn’t doing enough to recognize the women who built the LPGA, so he named a tournament after them and brought them to the desert.

Also on Whan’s agenda back in 2011: safeguard the future.

“If you’ve traveled the world like we all do,” said Whan, “you see a lot of the countries investing government money into the game for both young boys and young girls. That’s not really a thing in America. So we realized pretty quickly that we better be the ones who do that in the U.S.”

Since the start of the Founders Cup in 2011, the LPGA-USGA Girls Golf program has grown from 5,000 to 60,000 members. LPGA instructor Sandy LaBauve began the initiative in 1989 here in Phoenix. Today there are “girl-friendly” environments for junior golfers at nearly 400 sites across the country, with dozens being added this year.

The impact of the Founder’s Cup initiative – to change the face of golf – has been far-reaching.

National Golf Foundation data shows that in 1995, 17 percent of all junior golfers were girls. That’s similar to the 80/20 breakdown of adult men and women.

Today, 32 percent of youth golfers under the age of 18 are girls.

“We’ve never seen that kind of jump,” said Whan. “We’ve seen it hover around 20 percent the last 10 or 15 years.”

The LPGA’s stars are as diverse as they are young. The racial breakdown of youth golf is changing, too. The NGF reports that 20 years ago, 1 in 17 junior players were non-Caucasian. Today that number is nearly 1 in 3.

A key to the retention rate: There are 50 percent more junior golfers under the age of 12 than there were in 1995. NGF research found that Millennials who started playing golf before the age of 14 were almost twice as likely to become regular golfers.

Whan asked his membership to compete without a purse in the first year of this event to pass it forward to junior golf. That element of the Founders Cup didn’t last, but hasn’t been forgotten either.

Sandra Gal, for her part, created a unique program in conjunction with LPGA-USGA Girls Golf called “Walk with Sandra.”

Gal invites two young girls to walk inside the ropes with her on Thursdays and Fridays at most U.S.-based events. Interested girls write letters to Gal, and she selects the most motivated players in the bunch.

“The future of the game is changing,” said Whan. “It’s changing because of events like this, programs like this, partners like the USGA.”

Whan then pleaded with media to make this story known. Of all the ways the LPGA has changed for the better in the last five years, he said, this is most important.

This is the legacy.

“For some reason this has been the greatest secret in the LPGA’s game,” Whan said.

He’d like that to change.

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