Catriona Matthew has never needed to shout from the rooftops to make significant points. She does, however, carry enough experience and knowledge to speak with authority on the state of women’s golf.
The 47-year-old is one of the most understated and underappreciated sportspeople in the UK. Her triumph at the 2009 Women’s British Open, 11 weeks after giving birth to a daughter, remains one of the most remarkable stories in golf.
Matthew painted an ominous picture of life on the Ladies European Tour when speaking as Kingsbarns was showcased as the host course for the 2017 Women’s British Open and Gleneagles heralded the awarding of the 2019 Solheim Cup.
“Not really, to be honest,” said Matthew when asked if the early-season LET schedule was sufficient for competitors without high earnings. “If you were an emerging player playing in Europe you just about need to have a part-time job, I’d say, to keep you going.
“The tour does get better towards the second half of the year. The economy in Europe at the moment isn’t great with all that’s going on. It’s just a tough sell to get tournaments. A lot of the top players go to America. It’s a shame but it’s quite difficult.”
The concept of alternative employment to subsidise income would be alien to a professional footballer or male golfers who play on the European Tour. Which is arguably the way it should be; sport demands quite enough dedication and effort without the distraction of 40 hours of other work. The LET is the peak for female golfers in Europe; it isn’t a scholarship programme for fledging players.
The schedule endorses Matthew’s point. Three LET events have taken place this year in the hardly easily or cheaply accessible locations of Australia, China and Morocco. Look specifically at the prizes on offer throughout the season and it is tricky to decipher how even good players can make a living befitting their status in the game.
The LET money list for 2016 gets only to 30th place before gross winnings dip under €50,000 (£42,000). Finishing 100th on the European Tour’s Race to Dubai table meant €275,000 for Pelle Edberg. In the female equivalent, Linda Henriksson collected €9,472.
The Mediterranean Ladies Open near Barcelona this weekend is followed by a tournament gap stretching to mid-June and the Turkish Ladies Open. An “event in southern Europe” follows, before a relatively hectic spell, which includes a €250,000 tournament in the Czech Republic, the blue-chip Scottish Open and the European Ladies Masters before and after the Solheim Cup. The year concludes with tournaments in China, Abu Dhabi, India, Qatar, Japan and Dubai.
Female golfers are not locked into this scene. The financial holy grail involves progression to the LPGA Tour in the United States, as utilised by Matthew and more recently Charley Hull and Melissa Reid. The necessity to play only six LET events over two-year stretches means the link is minimal, that Solheim Cup element aside.
The gulf in purses – next week’s Texas Shootout, for example, is worth $1.3m – means a transatlantic switch becomes inevitable at some point. Reid, an LPGA rookie this season at the age of 29, pointedly said before the first major of this year: “I feel like I’ve got my hunger back for the game. I’ve said it before but qualifying school was kind of a make or break for me,” with the implication being that continuing to play in Europe was not feasible.
Matthew’s vast experience in the Solheim Cup will continue with a vice‑captain’s place this August in Iowa. She disputes that US-based players – and Europe’s team may well have only one who is not – dilute the competitive edge. “I think for the last five or six Solheim teams the majority of players have been playing in the US,” she said. “Maybe there were a couple purely from the LET but I think it’s a good mixture.
“At the end of the day we’re still European. OK, I’ve based my whole career on the LPGA but I’m very Scottish at heart. I think you always know where your roots are. A lot of Europeans still live in Europe.”
The challenges to keep golf relevant in Europe are well known. In the women’s game, the scale of that looks particularly severe.