Catriona Matthew believes the Ladies European Tour had “hit the bottom but is on the way up now”. Her fellow evergreen campaigner, Laura Davies, hopes so otherwise next year’s Solheim Cup at Gleneagles could be the equivalent of an LPGA Tour team event.
For the second year running, the Ricoh Women’s British Open, which gets underway today at Royal Lytham & St Annes, is being held at a time when playing opportunities are few and far between for LET members due to a threadbare schedule.
Last week’s Aberdeen Standard Investments Ladies Scottish Open at Gullane was the first 72-hole event of the 2018 season on European soil and the fact it boasted a prize fund of $1.5 million was only because it is now co-sanctioned by the LPGA.
A pot of $3.25 million is up for grabs in this week’s major on the Lancashire coast but, for LET members in the field, it will be back to auld claes and porridge when they are playing for just €275,000 in the French Open next month then €300,000 shortly afterwards in the Estrella Damm Ladies Open in Spain.
“Well, it’s not good, is it?” said Davies, a former world No 1, in delivering her verdict on the current state of the LET. “I mean, we’ve not got enough tournaments to play, and I feel sorry for all the young girls that are great players that need to play tournaments. It’s not easy to get to America, play on the Symetra Tour and try and get on the LPGA Tour.”
Davies, who is making her 38th consecutive appearance in this event added: “I know everyone behind the scenes is working incredibly hard trying to get things going. We just need the backing of corporate Europe really to see the value in us, because I think we’re well worth it. What the magic formula is, I don’t know. I’m a golfer. I don’t get involved in that side of it, and I just wish them the best because we deserve a good strong European Tour.”
On the upside, it has just been announced that the Hero Women’s Indian Open later in the year will boast an increased prize fund of $500,000 while LET players will also be taking part in a new Jordan Mixed Masters next April. “Anything better than this year, just moving forward,” replied Davies to being asked what would be deemed as an acceptable schedule in 2019, when a European side led by Matthew will try and win back the Solheim Cup at Gleneagles in September. “You’re be not going to get an immediate 25 tournaments. But how we don’t have tournaments in most countries I’ve got no idea.
“It would be good if we got 15 really good European events – and I’m not talking $200,000 events, because no one is making any money on $200,000. It would have to be $400,000-600,000 now because things are expensive on Tour.”
England’s Georgia Hall was playing primarily on the LET when she qualified automatically for last year’s Solheim Cup in Des Moines, but Davies believes the likelihood of anyone achieving that feat for the match in Perthshire is slim as things stand.
“The trouble is what it will become,” said the 12-time Solheim Cup player of what the impact might be on that event. “It will be the top Europeans that play on the LPGA against the top Americans of the LPGA and that would be a shame.
“People like Georgia and Charley [Hull] were European Tour players when they jumped on to the world stage early and it would be nice for Scandinavians, Spanish, German girls to get on the Solheim Cup team the same way because that first year is a learning experience.”
Twelve months ago, when this event was held at Kingsbarns, Matthew said she felt the LET had the “wrong person at the head” and, the following week, former boxing supremo Ivan Khodabakhsh stood down. Mark Lichtenhein was subsequently appointed as chairman of the LET board.
“I think the LET is in a much stronger position now,” insisted Matthew, back at Lytham, where she became the first Scot to win a women’s major in 2009. “Mark and his team have taken over and this has perhaps been a slight transition year. It was never going to go from what they had the year before to a full schedule this year.
“But I think from what I’ve heard, the schedule next year is looking strong. There’s already two new tournaments and hopefully a few others in the pipeline. So hopefully it’s hit the bottom and looks like we’re on the way up now I would say.”
Matthew triumphed here nine years ago just 11 weeks after she’d given birth to her second daughter, Sophie. “At the time I didn’t really probably appreciate what a big deal it was,” admitted the 48-year-old, having been used as a comparison when Serena Williams reached the Wimbledon women’s final after she gave birth earlier this year. “Looking back now, I suppose you realise what an amazing feat it really was actually.”
One disappointment for Matthew on her return to Lytham is that she only has one other Scot – Kylie Henry – for company compared to a five-strong tartan contingent in 2009 and six in Fife last year. “It’s a shame,” said the North Berwick woman. “I was fortunate when I first started there was about four or five on tour. But since three of them – Janice Moodie, Mhairi McKay and Kathryn Imrie – have stopped, it’s just been me. It’s kind of disappointing that there’s not more coming through.”