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Winning the World Over

A diverse and dynamic crop of young stars is elevating the LPGA Tour to new heights. By Lisa D. Mickey

Winning the World Over

A diverse and dynamic crop of young stars is elevating the LPGA Tour to new heights. By Lisa D. Mickey

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he LPGA Tour has gone global—and the world is taking notice. Like an athletic United Nations delegation, the tour has seen players from 10 different countries hoist trophies in 2023 (at the time of going to press in late October)—at tournaments that were staged throughout the United States, as well as in Thailand, Singapore, France, England, Scotland, Ireland and Canada. What’s more, examining the LPGA’s five 2023 major championship winners, their average age was just under 25. It all adds up to a highly exciting time on the LPGA Tour.

“We are in a great place, and we are super bullish about where we are going,” said Mollie Marcoux Samaan, commissioner of the LPGA Tour, at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, in June. “There is strong, strong interest in women’s golf, and the talent level and the youth on tour is unbelievable.”

Of this year’s major winners, Ruoning Yin of the People’s Republic of China is the youngest, at 20, while Celine Boutier of France—a three-time winner in 2023—is the senior performer at 29. “I feel like I’ve been very steady for a few years, and honestly, you have to stay patient and keep believing it’s going to happen,” says Boutier, who won her first major this year at the Amundi Evian Championship in her French homeland.

Boutier’s experience and maturity have catapulted her to a top-5 world ranking this season with 2023 earnings of more than $2 million. But the Thai-Frenchwoman, who played college golf at Duke University, knows there are plenty of young rising stars eager to stake their claims at the top of the LPGA Tour.

This group is led by Lilia Vu of California, who moved into the No. 1 spot of the Rolex World Rankings on the strength of winning two 2023 majors—the Chevron Championship and the AIG Women’s (British) Open—as well as the Honda LPGA Thailand. At 26, the Vietnamese-American—who won eight college tournaments while at UCLA—clinched the 2023 Rolex Annika Major Award as the player with the most outstanding record in all five majors during the LPGA season. She also pocketed more than $2.5 million in 2023 prize money along the way.

“I knew she had the stuff to play professional golf at a high level,” says her former coach at UCLA, Carrie Forsyth. “Lilia had an incredible career at UCLA and was the absolute best putter I have ever coached. She just needed to mature her game and allow her natural, competitive nature to shine.”

Second-year pro Allisen Corpuz, of Hawaii, was not the player most expected to outlast the field and best handle the rigors of Pebble Beach Golf Links at this year’s U.S. Women’s Open. However, the cheerful Filipino-Korean-American won by a three-shot margin, taking home a major and her first win on the LPGA Tour in the process. She also collected the event’s whopping $2 million paycheck.

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Allisen Corpuz celebrates with her caddie, Jay Monahan, after winning the U.S. Women’s Open at Pebble Beach. The 2023 Solheim Cup at Finca Cortesin.

“I had a feeling this could be a good year, but not this good,” concedes Corpuz, 25, who played college golf at the University of Southern California before her 2022 LPGA rookie season, in which she posted three top-10 finishes. “I think the difference in my second year on tour is being a little more comfortable out here, seeing a few more courses for the second time, and just knowing how to prepare a little better.”

Corpuz led the LPGA’s money list by the middle of October, with earnings of more than $2.95 million, with five top-10 finishes.

In contrast to Corpuz, Yin struggled as a rookie in 2022, missing nine tournament cuts in her first 13 events. But the Chinese player—who grew up watching 10-time LPGA winner Shanshan Feng—turned things around this April, at the 2023 DIO Implant LA Open, becoming only the second Chinese winner in LPGA history. She added a major win at the 2023 KPMG Women’s PGA Championship in June, and a third season win at the FREED Group Women’s Scottish Open in August.

“After my first win, a lot of friends texted me and said, ‘Congrats,’ and that I inspired them a lot,” says Yin. “That gave me more joy than winning.”

Another second-year pro, Linn Grant of Sweden, has demonstrated a dogged determination this season that earned her a spot on the 2023 European Solheim Cup team. The former Arizona State University player cracked the top 20 in the world rankings this year with steady play and her first LPGA win at the 2023 Dana Open.

“You always hope to be successful, and I think that’s what everyone out here plans to be,” says Grant, 24, who recorded four top-8 finishes during her 2022 rookie season. “But just because you don’t win doesn’t mean it wasn’t a successful tournament.”

Australian Gabriela Ruffels made the most of her opportunities as the top performer on the 2023 Epson Tour, the LPGA’s qualifying circuit. Ruffels clinched automatic 2024 LPGA Tour membership with three wins and stepped up again with a tie for 19th when she was invited, in August, to compete in the LPGA’s CPKC Women’s Open in Canada. “I’m so excited that I will be on the LPGA Tour next year,” says Ruffels, 23, who played college golf at the University of Southern California. “[To be able] to play in the tournaments that I grew up watching on TV is such a great feeling.”

Spain’s Ana Pelaez Trivino, 25, has emerged as one of the Ladies European Tour’s (LET) top performers, moving into the top 100 of the Rolex World Rankings. The former University of South Carolina collegiate player turned pro in 2021, won the 2022 Communidad Madrid Ladies Open by six strokes, and recorded seven top-10 finishes on the LET in 2023.

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Rose Zhang competes at the 2023 KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at Baltusrol and Aditi Ashok shone at the Rio Olympic Games.

The youth movement in women’s golf also features Japan’s Ayaka Furue, 23, Thailand’s Atthaya Thitikul, 20, California’s Rose Zhang, 20, Maja Stark, 23, of Sweden, and four-time LET winner Aditi Ashok, 25, of India, all of whom are ranked within the top 50 of the Rolex World Rankings at the time of writing.

Few if any players have arrived with such fanfare as Zhang, who won 12 college tournaments and two NCAA individual women’s championships in 2022 and 2023, while at Stanford University. The Chinese-American phenom wasted no time in living up to her name, as she won her LPGA pro debut in June at the Mizuho Americas Open.

“When I played Mizuho, it was only with the intentions of playing the best I could, and to try to make the cut,” Zhang told Kingdom magazine in an exclusive interview earlier this year. “Obviously the result turned out differently, and I’ve been super grateful for all the experiences that I’ve gained thus far on tour.”

Thitikul is another phenom. The Thai golfer holds the world record as the youngest winner of a professional tournament, as she won the 2017 Ladies European Thailand Championship as an amateur at the age of 14 years, four months and 19 days. She turned professional in 2020 and won twice on the LPGA Tour in 2022, on her way to winning the Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year award.

Globalization

As the LPGA’s profile has grown in fan appeal and media coverage over the last decade, sponsorship and prize money have risen accordingly. In 2023, the LPGA Tour’s scheduled broadcast coverage grew to more than 500 hours, while total LPGA tournament purses for the year are topping $100 million for the first time. That represents an increase of 50 percent since 2021. Two years ago, 15 players topped official prize money earnings of more than $1 million for the season, and that number rose to 27 players in 2022.

“All those things combine to make the LPGA the leading women’s professional sports property in the world,” claims commissioner Marcoux Samaan. “The LPGA Tour has never had better or more committed partners who see the commercial value in investing in women’s sports and who understand how their partnerships elevate women and girls on and off the golf course. As the home to the world’s best female golfers, the LPGA provides a platform to inspire young girls and women to dream big.”

The reach of the LPGA Tour is genuinely global, in terms of the countries that host tournaments—12 in 2023, across North America, Europe and Asia—and the nationalities of its players. On the LPGA Tour’s “Race to CME Globe” ranking so far in 2023, players from 25 different countries feature in the top 100.

Young golfers from countries where women’s golf is not as established continue to step up their games and public profiles in 2023. India’s Ashok has both embraced the attention and the opportunity it offers. “I think it’s very important for young kids, especially girls, in India to see golfers that look like them doing well internationally,” says Ashok, who won on the Ladies European Tour earlier this season, before posting five top 10s on the LPGA by mid-October. “Women’s golf wasn’t big in India when I was growing up, and I couldn’t watch it on TV, but now, the game has gotten bigger for women and a lot more young girls are picking up golf and can maybe see a career in it—playing on the LET or LPGA one day.”

Ashok opened eyes at the 2016 Rio Olympics when TV viewers watched a largely unknown woman—from a nation better known for cricket than golf—move into contention among the tournament leaders during the first few rounds. Her Olympic performance prompted her own nation to embrace golf more seriously, spurred the staging of women’s professional tournaments in India, and produced young Indian women players who now hope to follow Ashok to the LPGA Tour.

“In a country like India—where golf isn’t the most popular sport—it is important for me to represent my country, especially with events like the Olympics, where a lot of non-golf fans tune in and watch,” Ashok says. “I feel it helps grow the game or at least, the awareness of the sport back home.”

Thanks to young stars like Ashok, the popularity of the LPGA Tour promises to continue growing for years to come.

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