The math became a problem, which is ironic given that CME Group specializes in derivatives trading. On the weekend at last year’s CME Group Tour Championship, with Ariya Jutanugarn and Lexi Thompson battling it out for the title and So Yeon Ryu and Sung Hyun Park tying for Player of the Year, LPGA commissioner Mike Whan watched the action from a box behind the 18th green along with CME Group Chairman Terry Duffy. And while everyone could follow the leaderboard, nobody understood the permutations of the $1 million Race to the CME Globe.
Whan found himself constantly texting a staffer who was huddled over a spreadsheet in the nearby hotel. That’s when Duffy decided things needed to change.
“It was their idea,” Whan said of the CME team and what they proposed. “They came to me with this and that’s why it’s so exciting.”
In 2019, the CME Group Tour Championship will be a 60-player field (down from 80) and everyone in the that field will have a chance to win the largest winner’s check in the history of women’s golf: $1.5 million.
Gone will be the $1 million bonus awarded to the winner of the season-long Race to the CME Globe points race, which offered only three to five (and no more than 12) players who qualified for the season finale the chance to take home the cash. Starting next year, the points race will function simply as a Tour Championship qualifier, and if you’ve played well enough to make it into the top 60, you will be competing for a $5 million total purse, the same as the U.S. Women’s Open and more than double the tour average. According to Whan, “The second-place check for this tournament will be bigger than the winner’s check at some events.”
“What I want to do is get others thinking about the purses and hopefully they will go up,” Duffy said. “The economy has been going really well for a lot of people. The growth of the LPGA is up exponentially even compared to the PGA Tour. I want to be a leader. That’s what CME has done our entire career. We’re a leader and we want to be a little bit of a trailblazer. I said to Mike, ‘I want to take the prize money (up to $5 million), cut the field to 60 and pay a million and a half to the winner. I thought that was a much more interesting event.”
When Whan first came to the LPGA, his focus was not on raising purses. He wanted to fill the calendar and let market forces drive the purse numbers higher.
“I remember talking to my players the very first player meeting in 2010 and they were talking higher purses,” Whan said. “I said, ‘Higher purses don’t come because I make more phone calls or make more trips. Higher purses come when we build out a schedule and then there is competition to have the best field at each event.’
“People pay what they want to pay to have the best possible (value) proposition. When we were playing 22 times a year, it probably didn’t matter what your purse was. You were going to get a strong field. Now for the last four or five years we’ve built out. We’re at the schedule we’ve pretty much been at and we really don’t want any more events. And I think last year we had a third of our events had some sort of purse increase.
“So, flying back from Asia, looking at the LPGA stats and just seeing how many women made a million bucks or more: My first year we had two. Last year we had 17 or 18.
“If you’re one of the best, 50th, 60th, even 120th in the world in your sport, you shouldn’t need a rich uncle to help you cover travel expenses. This is an opportunity to say that, financially, ‘If I can make it to Naples and play good golf, I’m pretty secure, not just for this year but for next.’ It’s just a great opportunity.”