SOUTHERN PINES, N.C. -- Dottie Pepper recalls being paired with Meg Mallon for the final round of the 1991 U.S. Women’s Open with what she viewed as an impressive $110,000 first-place prize on the line.
Things have changed, but Lydia Ko says not enough.
Mallon would win that tournament and earn the record-breaking payday.
“It was the first time a winning check was six figures," Pepper said. “That was a big deal.”
Pepper has a hard time believing that a little more than three decades later, the top female golfers in the world will be competing for a record $10 million purse, including a winner’s share of $1.8 million at the U.S. Women’s Open that begins Thursday at Pine Needles, after the USGA secured a major sponsorship from ProMedica.
Ko, the No. 3-ranked women’s golfer in the world, said players should be grateful for steps toward equal pay but added “there’s still a ways to go.”
Even with the prize purse increasing $4.5 million from a year ago, the women still lag behind the men.
The men's 2021 U.S. Open purse was $12.5 million, with $2.25 million going to champion Jon Rahm. The prize money for this year's tournament is expected to increase substantially when it is announced next month. The Masters' purse went from $11.5 million to $15 million this year and the men's PGA Championship increased from $12 million to $15 million.
It is a gender pay discrepancy that is reflective in many professional sports.
In basketball, the average NBA player made $5.3 million per season, according to Basketball Reference, while WNBA stars Diana Taurasi, Jewell Loyd and Breanna Stewart earned a league-maximum $228,094. That’s a mere drop in the bucket for Golden State's Stephen Curry, whose annual salary is $45.7 million.
Women's basketball players including Brittney Griner, who the U.S government says is being wrongfully detained in Russia, take their games overseas during the offseason to supplement their incomes.
Professional female athletes' paychecks are smaller across various sports, according to a study by Adelphi University published in 2021:
— The average salary of a Major League Baseball player was $4 million, compared with $6,000 for those with Women’s Professional Fastpitch.
— Major League Soccer players earned an average of $410,730, compared with $35,000 for their female counterparts in the National Women's Soccer League.
— Male tennis players made on average $335,946 last year while the women earned $283,635.
— Male golfers averaged $1.25 million versus $48,993 for their female counterparts.
Of Forbes’ top 50 highest-paid athletes in 2022, tennis player Naomi Osaka was the only woman to make the list at $59.2 million — the vast majority of that coming from endorsement deals.
But strides are being made.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Soccer Federation reached a milestone agreement to pay its men’s and women’s teams equally, making the American national governing body the first in the sport to promise both sexes equal salaries. That came after fans chanted “Equal pay!” following the women's team's 2019 World Cup win and the team filed a discrimination lawsuit.
In tennis, there have been equal payouts for men and women at all four Grand Slam events — Wimbledon, the French Open, U.S. Open and Australian Open — since 2007, the result of Billie Jean King’s threat of a boycott back in 1973. However, men earn more than women at other, smaller tennis tournaments.
“I think women have not been paid as much because male executives, overwhelmingly white, saw less value in women’s sports," said Richard Lapchick, the director of The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports. "Also sport is a reflection of society where women are underpaid compared to men.
“Now attendance at women’s games and viewers on TV are increasing dramatically. That coupled with a better climate for social justice in the last two years is finally ramping up the discussions for equal pay. On the 50th anniversary of Title IX, I hope sports can help lead the way for equal pay for women everywhere.”
Female golfers are working hard to bridge the pay gap.
Australian Minjee Lee said gaining the confidence and backing of a major sponsor like ProMedica is “a huge step in the right direction” for women's golf. And female pro athletes in general.
"I think it’s only going to get better and better," Lee added.
When Annika Sorenstam won this event in 1996 at Pine Needles, she took home $212,500 and became the first female golfer to surpass $1 million in career earnings.
On Sunday, the champion will earn nearly twice that for winning one tournament.
“I think it’s fantastic,” Sorenstam said. “That is a massive change. It’s a massive boost. It gives the women a lot more credibility and respect. ... I hope other tournaments will follow suit, and let’s keep working this direction for other women.”
With ProMedica’s backing, the U.S. Women’s Open purse is set to increase annually to $12 million in the next five years.
“Seeing the sponsors that we have out here on the LPGA Tour, seeing the purse increases, the TV coverage, that’s what we want," said American Lexi Thompson, the world's No. 6-ranked golfer. "We want to grow the game and leave it in a better place.”
Karen Stupples started playing on the LPGA Tour in an era when women struggled to make a living.
Her first career tournament paycheck was for $1,306 in 1999 when she finished tied for 58th at the Phillips Invitational.
“I just can’t wrap my head around what a difference this could possibly make for somebody,” said Stupples, now a commentator for NBC covering this week's U.S. Open. “I can’t even properly speak about it. I mean, my goodness, what a move this is.”
Jin Young Ko, the world's No. 1 female player, said it's a lot of money at stake — and she plans to donate some of it back if she wins.
“I want to help children that want to be LPGA players,” Ko said. “I want to help them. If I win, I will do that.”
AP Golf Writer Doug Ferguson contributed to this report.
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