Across the board, golf continues to make progress in boosting its dreamers

World No. 1 Nelly Korda tees off at the AIG Women's Open, where the prize purse was raised to $5.8 million to make it the richest in women's golf.

While tournament prize purses continue to increase, even more important may be the growing number of playing opportunities aspiring professionals are being presented

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. — Opportunity can be a lonely, empty word if there is no concrete action to support it. One fortunate player on the PGA Tour in a few weeks will leave the 18th green of the Tour Championship in Atlanta having earned a $15 million piece of the FedEx Cup pie.

Fifteen million. That’s terrific. It’s just not reality for most everyone else. Some are lucky to earn $15,000. For so many highly talented players who aspire to play at higher levels, be it the PGA Tour, LPGA or European circuits, striving to be the best of the best in a growing global game, the road there is not paved by gold bricks, but rather in sweat and heartbreak and often, dry dust. Chasing a dream can mean playing for your own money, wondering if spending a night in your car is worth a better meal tomorrow, or falling a few agonizing dollars shy of the next entry fee.

Of late, we are seeing some tangible examples of golf and golfers stepping up with opportunity, offering a boost, and reaching out with a helping hand to the next aspiring generation.

This week’s AIG Women’s (British) Open at Carnoustie, in Scotland, bumped its purse to $5.8 million, the richest in women’s golf. Next year’s championship at Muirfield will feature a purse of $6.8 million, which will double the prize money offered just a few years ago. When COVID-19 raised havoc with 2021 schedules, Englishman Justin Rose backed a seven-event Rose Ladies Series. Golfers give.

Billy Horschel, who grew up without a silver spoon, recently organized a tournament for the Advocates Professional Golf Association (APGA), a men’s developmental tour for up-and-coming minority golfers, at TPC Sawgrass, offering 18 golfers a chance to compete for $80,000. Major sponsors such as Cisco and Farmers Insurance joined his effort; Horschel already is looking to grow the event to at least $150,000 in Year 2.

On the women’s Symetra Tour, a developmental tour that feeds the LPGA, the Donald Ross Classic at French Lick (Ind.) Resort recently announced its 2022 purse will be $335,000 ($50,000 to first), a significant jump from this year’s already generous $250,000, a level that is matched only by the season-ending Symetra Tour Championship.

This is progress. Nice progress. This week under the backdrop of the World Golf Hall of Fame, club manufacturer PXG was the latest to jump in, announcing an autumn doubleheader (sanctioned by the Women’s All Pro Tour) conducted for female players in the midst of chasing cards at various tour qualifiers.

First, a 54-hole stroke-play event will be played beginning Oct. 26 on the facility’s King and Bear Course. To follow Nov. 1-4 is a 64-player PXG Women’s Match Play Championship at Slammer and Squire. St. Augustine and neighboring Ponte Vedra Beach represent a strong area for golf, home not only to the World Golf Hall of Fame but to the annual Players Championship. This will be the first professional women’s event contested in the Greater Jacksonville area since 1976. Total purse: $50,000.

“This is more than women’s golf,” said Mark Berman of MediaShare Consulting Group, a self-described “girl dad” whose daughter and her friends play collegiately. He has watched players run the stages of junior golf to high school golf and some advancing to the college level … only to be slowed by a competitive bottleneck if interested in pursuing the game at a higher level.

“It’s like there is this road map … but there’s really not a road map,” Berman said.

In between the two competitive events in St. Augustine, the 70 players in the starting field will be invited to the Generation W Links to Leadership Summit on Oct. 29. Golf is a numbers game in so many ways. Not everyone will reach the big leagues, but some who have a passion for the game might find other opportunities across the golf industry, working for governing organizations, management groups, as instructors, clubfitters or with club companies. The 10 days that players spend on site promises to be empowering, both on the course and off.

“We are vital and vibrant contributors from the time we are little girls to the time we are grown women, and that needs to be valued,” said Donna Orender, founder/CEO of Generation W. Orender, who played basketball professionally, previously served in leadership roles at the PGA Tour and as commissioner of the WNBA. As a founding member of the highly successful KPMG Women’s Summit that takes place during the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, she knows the value of networking and building strong personal leadership skills. She will deliver the summit’s opening remarks.

“It’s a half-day session, and it will be energizing and it will be inspirational,” Orender said. “We think about bringing women together, the opportunity to learn from each other, to learn about themselves, to develop personal leadership skills, collective connection skills, and then take that out into the world. … This is meaningful. The opportunity for girls is critical.”

Staging 10 days of competition in one spot allows the players a nice break from the endless travel they often endure to chase a dream. Jessica Porvasnik is a former Ohio State University standout who now plays on the Women’s All Pro Tour (WAPT), a 14-tournament series that provides playing options for those trying to bridge the wide gap from college to the Symetra Tour and beyond. She drove 19 hours at one point as she made her way from Florida to Texas, home to Ohio, and then out to Colorado.

“I’ve been making circles,” Porvasnik said, smiling.

At WAPT events, players often put up an entry fee of $575, with winners generally earning $8,000. She has played on other tours where the entry is $500 and a winner might earn $1,000. It’s gambling, basically. The WAPT has been around for a couple of seasons, and Porvasnik applauds the circuit for giving golfers better venues and stronger competition.

Porvasnik has been to the first stage of qualifying for the Symetra/LPGA tours three times, never advancing through. She missed by a shot her first time. Her status as the WAPT’s Race to Stage 2 points leader means she will advance directly to Stage 2 this October in Venice, Fla., hoping then to move on to the LPGA Q-Series, a grind of 144 holes over two weeks in Alabama in December. A minimum of 45 LPGA cards will be awarded at the Q-Series final.

Leela Brennan, vice president of communications and engagement for PXG, said the PXG Match Play fits well with her company’s directive, which is to make the game fun and more diverse.

“It’s our authentic self,” Brennan said. “We’re an experiential brand. We want to help build great stories, not just in this community, but nationally, and internationally.”

PXG jumping in to support this two-tiered event between Stage 2 and the Q-Series is “huge,” Porvasnik said. She has played about 20 events around the country this season. In 11 WAPT starts, she has earned $21,847. That barely covers her travel.

“At this level,” she said, “it’s not like you have too many sponsors. You definitely have your parents and grandparents who have your back, but you’re not at that next level yet. You’re kind of in limbo. So every day is a challenge, and you are trying your best. You’re just trying to get that little bit better. It might be making one more putt per round, and eventually, it’s what is going to get you there.”

She wears a gold pendant inscribed “Patient+Positive.” It fits the journey well. Golf would do well to mirror that thought, staying patient and positive as the game moves forward. Sometimes progress arrives in the smallest increments, like one 10-foot putt in a long round, and sometimes it comes with a welcomed thunderbolt. Slowly or not, progress is progress, and it’s nice to be viewing it.