NAPLES, Fla. – Rose Zhang wasn’t even born the last time the PGA Tour and LPGA held a mixed-team event. Ludvig Aberg was a mere 2 months old in December of 1999, when legends Laura Davies and John Daly won the final edition of the JCPenney Classic.
For generations of players, what took place this week at the inaugural Grant Thornton Invitation was a new concept – and they want more of it.
“We need to do this for the game of golf,” said Billy Horschel of bringing the two tours together. “We do a lot of stuff that looks out for the players, but we need to make sure we are taking care of the fans and thinking about the fans more.”
Speaking of fans, there were more at Tiburon Golf Club than at previous QBE Shootouts and CME Group Tour Championships. Cheyenne Knight teed off early with partner Tom Hoge and was surprised by the number of fans on the first tee. Ticket sales and concession sales doubled this week compared to last year’s QBE and hospitality sold out, according to tournament officials.
Knight hopes some of these local fans come back next year for the CME, where the winner will receive a $4 million first-place check, the largest in all of women’s sports.
Joel Dahmen marveled at the number of kids he saw this week, particularly little girls, far more than an average week on the PGA Tour, he said. He called watching Lexi Thompson’s ace on Saturday one of the highlights of his year, and said he’d like to see the Grant Thornton field expand from 16 teams in 2024.
“There’s no reason we can’t have more mixed-team events,” said Dahmen after Saturday foursomes. “There are so many events on the PGA Tour, ratings aren’t always amazing in some of those fields. To bring in the women’s game would be awesome.
“I was completely outclassed today by Lexi.”
Lexi Thompson of the United States and Rickie Fowler of the United States look on from the first green during the second round of the Grant Thornton Invitational at Tiburon Golf Club on December 09, 2023 in Naples, Florida. (Photo by Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images)
Early week buzz at the Grant Thornton was overshadowed by U.S. Golf Association and R&A rollback news and Jon Rahm to LIV Golf drama, controversies that dominated the golf chatter on social media and beyond. The action at Tiburon, however, provided a much-needed escape from that which divides golf fans.
The Grant Thornton was a celebration of what unites – camaraderie, competition and inspiration. Thursday’s junior clinic with Amy Bockerstette, Jessica Korda, Leona Maguire and Dahmen epitomizes what golf can do for good. Bockerstette’s “I Got This Foundation” is one of the charities that benefits from money raised this week.
Walking onto the first tee Friday, Sahith Theegala turned to Dahmen’s caddie and noted how “cool” it was to play in the same group as Lilia Vu, the first world No. 1 he’d ever played alongside, and to partner with Zhang, a dominant amateur he predicted would be a future No. 1 on the LPGA.
“Me and Joel were joking that Lilia and Rose will be better than maybe we ever will be,” said Theegala, who won his first PGA Tour title at this year’s Fortinet Championship.
PGA Tour players admired the games of LPGA players all week, and it felt genuine. Former No. 1 Jason Day asked Lydia Ko about her wedge game, noting that he’d be trying to emulate his Kiwi partner during the offseason.
Major champion Justin Rose described his playing partner, Charley Hull, as an old-school player, detailing the way she shapes her iron shots. He called Hull “fearless” and described her short game as “unbelievable.”
Such praise goes a long way in building respect for female players who fight weekly for the attention of not just the sports world, but of those already within the golf landscape.
Justin Rose of England and Charley Hull of England talk on the second green during the first round of the Grant Thornton Invitational at Tiburon Golf Club on December 08, 2023 in Naples, Florida. (Photo by Douglas DeFelice/Getty Images)
Rose, who founded and backed the Rose Ladies Series during the COVID-19 pandemic to give British players a place to compete, gets it more than most.
“You need fan awareness to have the pay equality,” said Rose. “Because obviously at the end of the day, it’s a commercial business. You need the eyes watching it to kind of make the TV dollars on the back end.
“So I think obviously fans being able to pick their favorite players, to be a bit more aware around the skill level around the women’s game, identify with the players and their stories – they’re more likely to watch going forward. I think this is absolutely one of those key events to help do that.”
Nick Taylor took note how the fans in Naples reacted with surprise to the women often hitting it closer than their male counterparts. There was no Shotlink available this week, but hopefully next year as the unique formats – particularly the modified fourball, where players hit drives and then switch balls – can provide some interesting data points.
Making Olympic golf a mixed event has long been talked about and came up once again in Naples, as did a larger mixed team event like the Presidents Cup.
“Looking at my grand ball, someone’s got to step up,” said Horshel.
“A team competition, Ryder Cup-style between the U.S. and Europe, or whether it be the U.S. and the world, men and women … I think that would be another home run for everyone involved. I think that’s coming down the line.
“If it’s not being talked about then I don’t know, maybe we need to change the people in the positions and get some more innovative thinkers in there.”
The game needs it.