NAPLES, Fla. – The seeds of the CME Group Tour Championship began with a pro-am 15 years ago. In those early years, CME Group Chairman and CEO Terry Duffy received note after note from clients who so enjoyed their rounds of golf with LPGA players that they instantly became fans of the tour.
Beginning in 2011, CME began title-sponsoring the LPGA’s year-ending event, eventually integrating the firm’s Global Financial Leadership Conference in Naples, Florida, with the LPGA’s season-ending event at the Ritz-Carlton’s Tiburon Golf Club. This week, Duffy will hand over the biggest check in the history of the women’s game – $2 million. The overall purse of $7 million is the largest on the LPGA outside of the majors (and is bigger than the purses at two of the five majors). The last player in the field of 60 will make $40,000, close to what 10th place made last week.
Former U.S. presidents, secretaries of state and business tycoons have presented at CME’s conference, and for Tuesday night’s dinner, the firm typically invites a select number of players to attend. Earlier this week, when Duffy asked for the houselights to be turned on so that he could applaud the players in the room, the only people standing were those serving the tables.
Not a single player showed up.
“It’s an embarrassment to a company of my size and an embarrassment to me personally,” said Duffy, two days after the event.
Duffy’s beef isn’t with the players, though — it’s with who’s at the helm.
“I am exceptionally disappointed with the leadership of the LPGA,” he continued. “They better get their act together because they’re going to lose people like me over stuff like this.”
When CME first sponsored the Titleholders event in 2011, the purse was $1.5 million and the winner received $500,000. Three years later, the Race to the CME Globe season-long points race was introduced with a $1 million bonus. That bonus has since been folded into the official prize money with a winner-take-all format. In 2018, it was announced that the winner would receive $1.5 million, which at the time was more than what most PGA Tour winners received.
“This announcement is really about setting a new standard in women’s golf,” said then-commissioner Mike Whan four years ago. “I would love to lie to you guys and say that I called Terry 16 times and pushed and pushed him for it, but it was his idea.”
Duffy aimed to blaze a trail that he hoped other organizations would follow. His influence today is similar to what David Foster did at Mission Hills in the 1970s to elevate the women’s tour with the Colgate-Dinah Shore Winner’s Circle.
LPGA commissioner Mollie Marcoux Samaan speaks with the media during a roundtable during the second round of the CME Group Tour Championship at Tiburon Golf Club on Nov. 18, 2022, in Naples, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Mollie Marcoux Samaan was named commissioner of the LPGA 18 months ago, and she was at the dinner that players skipped.
“There hasn’t been any greater supporter of the LPGA than CME Group and Terry Duffy,” Marcoux Samaan told Golfweek on Friday when asked about the incident.
“There was clearly a disconnect, and it’s my responsibility to make sure that this doesn’t happen. So on this particular issue, I’m taking full responsibility as a leader of the organization to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”
This week, the LPGA announced that the total prize fund in 2023 will cross the $100 million mark for the first time, despite losing three full-field events and only adding one (although it’s unknown at this point if players will actually be able to travel to the two events in China that are worth $4.2 million). The majors and CME represent nearly half of the tour’s prize money, with only three additional events on the schedule with a purse of at least $3 million. A dozen events still offer purses below $2 million.
As the LPGA’s big events do the heavy lifting, it’s still a grind to push longtime sponsors to higher purses and fill in the gaps of those who don’t renew. Veteran players, who not too long ago worried that the LPGA might not survive, understand that a culture of appreciation remains vital.
The accessibility and approachability of players is what drove Duffy to take a pro-am event with about 20 players and build it into a benchmark event for women’s sports.
While the LPGA continues to reach new heights financially, the chasm between the men’s and women’s tours only grows deeper as some purses on the PGA Tour’s schedule now reach $20 million. LPGA veteran Karen Stupples believes it’s critical that LPGA players maintain the “act like a Founder” mantra that Whan preached for years.
“They went to baseball parks and did tricks on the fields to bring people in to watch them play golf,” said Stupples of the 13 women who founded the tour in 1950. “The players don’t have to do that anymore, They have to go to a party or two. Just treat it as your job. Your job description is to do this.”
Terry Duffy addresses the crowd with Keith Urban, who performed on the lawn at the Ritz on Wednesday as part of the week’s festivities at CME. (Photo courtesy of CME)
It’s not unusual now for top players to turn down pre-tournament interviews, even at major championships and CME. Some will meet with the print media or Golf Channel, but not both. Sometimes, it’s nothing at all.
When Stacy Lewis became the No. 1 player in the world, a couple of LPGA Hall of Famers sat her down and outlined the expectations.
“They just said, as a top American, as No. 1 in the world, you’re going to be asked to do a lot of things,” said Lewis. “You’re going to be asked to do a lot of interviews that you don’t want to do. You need to do it because it’s what’s best for the tour. It will be productive for you; it will be productive for the tour. It creates more exposure, and that’s your job. Your job as a top player is to help build this tour.”
Stupples believes that players often get so caught up in their own little bubbles that they fail to see the bigger picture. Lewis agrees.
“It’s all these kinds of things that for so long they were unsaid, and people just did it because it’s the right thing to do,” said Lewis, “and the current generation needs to hear it, needs to be taught it.”
For the LPGA to continue on an upward trajectory, player buy-in remains critical, especially when it comes to knowing the expectations of those who write the checks.
“I’m concerned about the future of the tour,” said Duffy, “because the leadership needs to work with their players to make sure that everybody has a clear understanding of how we grow the game together, along with sponsors and others. There’s no one person, no two people who can grow it alone. You need everybody. They say it takes a village, and I think their village is getting a little fractured.”
Marcoux Samaan said she continues to emphasize the “act like a Founder” culture Whan created at staff and player meetings, believing that the organization’s “secret sauce” of hospitality, sponsor engagement and accessibility remains one of its biggest strengths.
“We just need to continue to deliver that message,” said Marcoux Samaan, “and I don’t think anyone disputes it. I think everyone believes it. Sometimes you just miss in the moment.”