Ivan Khodobakhsh, the CEO of the Ladies European Tour, owns to mixed feelings about the way the last place in the forthcoming ShopRite LPGA Classic was decided. Namely, by going with the player – it was India’s Sharmila Nicollet – with the most Twitter votes. (The four players in the poll were all strikingly attractive women.)
Some people were appalled, others bemused. Khodobakhsh, for his part, took a long, hard look at the situation, both from the players’ point of view and the LET’s.
Starting with the players, he said he would never presume to tell one of his charges how she should be marketing herself. “It’s her right to position herself however she chooses; she is her own brand.” Yet he makes no secret of how, from the moment he arrived at the LET, he was acutely aware that the players needed to “up” the image they had of themselves. He had recognised at once that they saw themselves as second-class citizens who lagged behind the men in every way.
“They would tell me that they were very good at pro-ams; that sponsors liked playing with them and that if the sponsors preferred to put on pro-ams rather than tournaments, we should go along with it.
“Personally,” continued the CEO, “I wasn’t in favour. The thing is that they’re not a tour of waitresses looking after men for heaven’s sake. If every tournament was a pro-am instead of a proper tournament, the tour would become a joke.”
“Of course the girls have to be good with sponsors but I want to see them celebrating their athleticism and their achievements. As Suzann Pettersen has said, women need to be empowered rather than the reverse.”
Khodobakhsh felt that the Olympics, where the golfers were treated no differently from the men, helped the empowering process, and that the same applied with the presentation of the LET’s Lalla Meryem Cup in Morocco. There, the men competing in the European Tour’s Trophee Hassan II and the women played on adjacent courses and shared a players’ lounge and dining room. To his relief, Khodobakhsh recognised that his players were noticeably more comfortable with themselves than they might have been in the past.
Looking at the ShopRite situation from his position as CEO of the LET, Khodobakhsh said he would not encourage any sponsor to go down that route.
“However, if you are asking how I would react if a sponsor were to say, ‘This is the reason we are prepared to put money into a tournament,’ I do not have a definite answer. I would certainly not be saying, ‘This is something the LET would never do’ because I have to be mindful that my members are always asking for more playing opportunities. First, though, I would try and sort things out by discussion and persuasion.
“We’re on a good trajectory at the moment as more sponsors are coming on board, I don’t need to do desperate moves.”
The tour is indeed showing signs of improvement, with things having taken an encouraging turn at the end of last year when the women played three tournaments in a row – in Dubai, Qatar and Abu Dhabi – for a total of €1.5 million.
The total prize money, which was €10 million in 2013, is up to €15 million this year and could pass the €16 million mark when agreement is reached on one more European event.
“There’s still a bit of to-ing and fro-ing with the schedule,” Khodobakhsh acknowledged, in a reference to an end-of-season run when the events whiz from one distant land to another. He knows as well as anyone that it is not ideal but, as he says, if there are no tournaments to be had closer to home, he has to go where he can get them.
“The big thing is that we’re beginning to get more tournaments in Europe and that the tournaments we are playing at the moment are good ones. The courses are better and the money’s better.” He cites the Aberdeen Asset Management Ladies Scottish Open as an event which has improved its status for this year. Not only did he persuade the sponsors to drop what was a pro-am format over three rounds but there will now be four regular rounds, with the event worth €1.5 million as against the €500,000 of last year. And with this co-sanctioned exercise (with the LPGA) taking in 80 LET players.
The CEO had a long talk with Keith Pelley on the flight back from Morocco about the way ahead.
He applauded the European Tour’s chief executive for the entertainment he introduced via the recent GolfSixes and, on watching the event in question, he thought the formula was a good one. However, were he to follow suit with an LET version, he says he would keep a wary eye on sponsor’s requests. He would not want too many gimmicks.
At a time when LET events and the way the LET staff are presenting them are edging forwards in terms of calibre and class, he does not want to go ahead with anything which could be perceived as a step in the wrong direction.