In Los Angeles, where major sports leagues, teams and individuals regularly reinvent themselves to resonate with their entertainment-loving target audiences, the Ladies Professional Golf Association is making a comeback on the local sports business scene.
The LPGA recently announced that its 72nd season will return with a tour stop at Wilshire Country Club – the $1.5 million JTBC LA Open, which runs April 21-24.
When the event launched in 2018, it had a three-year trial commitment. It then navigated the realities of the Covid pandemic, canceling in 2020 and then playing without spectator galleries in 2021.
Based on recent history, the LPGA might have considered worse karma that Los Angeles is not compatible.
Instead, it doubled.
Outlyr, the company that owns and operates the LA Open as well as eight other LPGA Tour events, announced it was planting another flag in another part of Southern California. He created the JTBC Championship at Palos Verdes Golf Club, following the Los Angeles Open from April 28 to May 1, and offering another $1.5 million purse.
How did this confluence happen, and why now?
Outlyr’s Patrick Healy, executive director of both legs of the LPGA’s Southern California tour, credits how businesses globally, nationally and locally are making a deliberate pivot in response to a major trade move.
“It really starts with a company’s visible commitment to global diversity, equality and inclusion — and doing it with authenticity,” Healy said. “DE&I is in the top three priorities when you look at any list of business goals and objectives these days. There’s no better property in the sport to line up for all that now than the LPGA Tour.
For those keeping score, the LPGA has tried 33 different events on 13 courses in Southern California since 1955. What might have been the final straw was the ill-fated 2005 Office Depot Championship at Trump National Golf Club. Los Angeles (actually, at Rancho Palos Verdes), which only lasted a year as players and organizers were unable to navigate unpleasant ground fog in October.
It only took more than a dozen years for the LPGA to emerge from this fog bank. Diversity, equity and inclusion business initiatives have also cleared the air.
“We are riding a big wave in terms of growth with the DE&I initiatives, and we have buy-in from the local community and their businesses,” said LA Open Tournament Director Dave Tucker. “There has been a call to action to promote women and gender equality and the platform that the LPGA represents in class and diversity is really why this LA Open opened up a lot of eyes to the companies that have sponsored them.”
Healy added, “Historically, companies have spent entertainment sponsorships on the male side of sports. But I think right now, to be blunt, putting your money where your mouth is, we’ve found the LPGA Tour to be a great opportunity for corporate partners to support that mission.
In 2018, Outlyr (then known as Eiger Marketing Group) announced that the LA Open would have two determined South Korean companies sharing title sponsorships. One was JTBC – the Seoul-based Joongang Tongyang Broadcasting Co., already an LPGA partner media conglomerate.
Now, JTBC not only has the highest rating at the two Southern California events, but also at the longest-running LPGA Tournament in Carlsbad March 24-27. It should be noted that when JTBC acquired the Korean rights to the 2026-2032 Olympics, one incentive was that it included the 2028 Los Angeles Summer Games.
Connecting the dots, the LPGA Tour has an abundance of successful South Korean golfers gaining global exposure, and Los Angeles has an abundance of Korean-American residents seeking cultural infusion.
In the latest Women’s World Golf Rankings, nearly 100 of the top 300 list their nationality as South Korea. No. 1 overall Jin Young Ko, a 26-year-old player who has been named LPGA Player of the Year for the past two years, sparked the most recent excitement, already No. 25 on the all-time price list at $9.4. million.
There are also top Korean-American golfers with local ties. World No. 5 Danielle Kang attended high schools in the San Fernando Valley and played Pepperdine. His parents immigrated from South Korea, as did those of Michelle Wie West, the 32-year-old star from Encino who came to the United States as a child prodigy.
This all makes sense in the Korean-American community of Los Angeles, where nearly 400,000 of the 1.5 million people of Korean descent live, making it the largest gathering of this demographic in any city in the United States.
“The LPGA Tour places great importance on bringing these back-to-back events to the Los Angeles area,” said Scott Ensign, Senior Director of Tournament Business Development, LPGA. “LA has also been a particularly strong and important market for our Korean broadcast partner, JTBC, which in part illustrates our decision to host these two events for consecutive weeks with their partnership.”
It is also the significance of the Wilshire Country Club, which opened in 1919 and hosted the PGA Tour stops in Los Angeles four times in the 1920s to 1940s. The Hancock Park site is adjacent to the area of 2.7 square miles of Los Angeles known as Koreatown. Its trendy popular Korean restaurants attract not only star LPGA players, but also Korean Americans from all parts of the region.
Inbee Park, a 33-year-old Hall of Famer ranked No. 6 in the world and No. 4 all-time in career moneymaking at $17.9 million, took the first-round lead in of the first JTBC LA Open in 2018. She remarked at the time, “I have never played a tournament outside of Korea with so many Korean fans. I almost feel like I’m playing at home. It’s almost like a little Korea.
Mark Beccaria, president of the Wilshire Country Club and hotel real estate investor in Los Angeles, said having the LPGA in his course goes far beyond the financial benefits he could derive from not having it. He said they were open to considering an extension of their current contract.
“It’s been a win-win relationship to show the diversity of our club and in all ways to give back,” Beccaria said. He also notes that Wilshire Country Club’s more than 500 members now include three LPGA players – South Korean Hee Young Park, as well as Korean-American from Southern California Andrea Lee (raised in Hermosa Beach and a star at Stanford University) and Robynn Ree (Redondo Beach/USC), who were able to organize clinics for young people.
In addition to global and national companies, notable local companies have joined the event. The Tuesday before the tournament, a Women’s Leadership Luncheon sponsored by JP Morgan Chase is held at the Wilshire Country Club, bringing together around 100 business people to network. Manhattan Beach-based Sketchers has hired many of the LPGA’s top players as clients. Commonwealth Business Bank started in Los Angeles in 2005 as an extension of its South Korean base and is the Official Banking Partner of the Los Angeles Open. Los Angeles-based real estate investment firm Excelsior Partners LLC has also been actively involved.
“None of this is sustainable without the support of local LA businesses stepping in,” Healy said.
Also illustrating the evolution of the sports field, the LPGA Tour, as a Southern California entity, has had a presence in the Coachella Valley for over 50 years. What began in the 1970s when the Dinah Shore Classic blossomed into a major popular touring event in the early 1980s. Yet the LPGA recently decided it had run its course. It will still take place the first weekend in April at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, with a new title sponsor, Chevron, and a purse increased from $3.1 million to $5 million. But then it will be transplanted to Houston from 2023.
And meanwhile, two events in the greater Los Angeles area are taking root.
Tucker said that as the Los Angeles business community embraces women’s pro teams as established as the WNBA’s Sparks and as new as the Angel City Football Club, “it’s exciting to have another event which caters to professional women in a diverse space, LA has shown it has the business community to help partner with so many events that make it an enduring model.
Healy adds, “Los Angeles is an A-market and it’s a big driver for us and the LPGA Tour to use LA as a venue to showcase their talent as we return open to the public after this pandemic.”