The L.P.G.A. didn’t always trail behind, picking up leftover time slots. In 1976, two years before a rookie named Nancy Lopez heightened interest in the L.P.G.A., the tour’s first major, then known as the Dinah Shore, drew higher ratings than the men’s Greater Greensboro Open held the same week.
The L.P.G.A.’s greatest ambassador then was an Australian, Jan Stephenson, who was famous not for her success — her three major championships came in the early 1980s — nor her work ethic, even though she shut down the driving range most dusks.
Ray Volpe, the L.P.G.A. commissioner at the time, had identified Stephenson as golf’s answer to Farrah Fawcett, the era’s feminine ideal, and he used her to market sex appeal to big-name sponsors. As Stephenson, who was inducted this month into the World Golf Hall of Fame, recently recalled: “I’d get a Telex in my locker at the end of a tournament from Ray and it’d say ‘There’ll be an airplane ticket for you at the airport, could you fly to New York? I’ve got a potential sponsor.’ We probably signed 10 12-year contracts that way, just on me wining and dining and playing golf with potential sponsors.”
Those deals set the stage for Lopez’s long-running show. On the strength of her telegenic personality and her 48 L.P.G.A. victories, which included three majors, Lopez broadened the audience, and appetite, for women’s golf. Since Lopez’s retirement from regular tour play in 2002, the L.P.G.A. has looked near and far for someone with both the charisma and accomplishments to commandeer the spotlight in the United States. A teenage Michelle Wie came the closest, but injuries stalled her flight, and she spoke poignantly last week of not knowing how much more competitive golf her crumbling body will allow.
Women’s golf doesn’t lack charismatic stars, but they are foreign-born players whose influence is most evident in their homelands. Ariya Jutanugarn, 23, a two-time L.P.G.A. Player of the Year and the first major winner from Thailand, is such a big deal there that a movie is being made of her life. Park, who in 2017 became the first rookie since Lopez to win Player of the Year honors, is met by the kind of hysteria in South Korea typically reserved for its pop bands.
Throughout Asia, Whan said, the women routinely outdraw the men. “So I know it’s possible,” he said.
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