LET eyes growth after crowning Aramco Team Series winner

(courtesy of Aramco Team Series)

Jessica Korda and Sophia Popov left the 17th hole arm and arm after a tense double-hole playoff to conclude the Aramco Team Series. What the two talked about is something Korda, who took home the team trophy at Glen Oaks, says will stay between the two competitors and friends.

“Sophia and I are great friends and playing anything against any of your best friends is tough,” said Korda, “but golf is golf and friendship is more important.”

The moment may have been a quiet exchange between friends, but the scene was apropos for a week focused on the expansion of the Ladies European Tour to U.S. soil and a return to team golf following the dramatic Solheim Cup. Popov and Korda found themselves on opposite teams, just as they did in Ohio for September’s Solheim contest between the U.S. versus Europe, with Korda walking away victorious this time around.

Team Korda take a selfie with the ATS trophy (courtesy of Aramco Team Series)

The Aramco Team Series, held over three days in Glen Oaks Club, Long Island, marked the first-ever Ladies European Tour event in the United States. The move is all part of a growing synergy between the LPGA and LET after the two entities signed a 50-50 merger in 2019. The joint venture seeks to grow the game and especially in Europe, where the tour was once struggling to put events on the calendar. Weathering the pandemic shutdown, the LET appears to be on the upswing, a point many competing in the Aramco Team Series were keen to point out.

Catriona Matthew, who captained Europe to back-to-back Solheim Cup wins in 2019 and 2021, says events like the one at Glen Oaks is “great exposure” for European players “who wouldn’t normally get the chance to play here in the States.”

“Obviously, with the LPGA and LET merging now, I think you’ll hopefully see this a little more over the next few years,” said Matthew, adding, “It’s a win-win for both tours. Obviously, the LPGA played in New Jersey last week and we’ve got the likes of Lexi [Thompson], Jessica [Korda], Nelly [Korda], and Danielle [Kang] this week and, again, that’s a good thing for the LET to have these top players playing.”

Sophia Popov in action at Glen Oaks (courtesy of the Aramco Team Series)

Alexandra Armas, the CEO of the LET, was present for the groundbreaking New York series, an event she couldn’t have imagined only a few years ago.

“On the back of where LET was, and it was struggling in the last few years, and then we had this big vision of where we wanted to take it and the collaboration with the LPGA and then COVID hit, we didn’t know how we wanted to get through that,” Armas admits.

In collaboration with Golf Saudi, the Aramco Series started in Jeddah in 2020 as a COVID solution for the Tour, growing to a four-leg event following the success of the contest in Saudi Arabia. The competition added a critical string of events to the LET and a prize fund of $1 million for each of the New York, Sotogrande, Jeddah, and London tournaments. The Series’ innovative set-up features teams of four, including three pros and one amateur, a format Armas hopes will attract new eyeballs to the sport.

“We have to, and on the back of COVID especially, be more creative about how we become relevant, how we appeal more,” said Amras, “you know it’s easy for the PGA Tour, it’s established, they don’t have to be that creative, but we have to be, we have to be kind of be modern with the game and try to get more attention and fan base and grow.”

Without the same coverage and television rights deals as men’s golf, Armas says the Tour is just at the beginning of their journey, making commercial partnerships, like the one with Aramco, imperative to the growth of the game.

England's Charley Hull with her ATS winner's trophy (courtesy of Aramco Team Series)

Charley Hull, who took home the individual trophy at Glen Oaks for her third LET title and first since 2019, agrees with Armas, praising the competition for its role in progressing the sport.

“The backing these Aramco Team Series events gets is so important to supporting and growing the game, and they are all done really well.”

Fellow LET and LPGA competitor Anna Nordqvist echoed Hull’s sentiment, calling the New York competition “one of the most professional events I have ever been a part of,” a major statement from a golfer that has been on the Tour for over a decade.

“For companies to believe in women’s golf and wanting to give girls an opportunity, I think that’s massive,” said Nordqvist, adding, “I think it’s changed a lot of girls on the European Tour’s life and the fact that they can play and go to these amazing places.”

World No. 1 Nelly Korda summed up the underlying and pervasive conversation around investment succinctly, stating, “Aramco also invests in men’s sports, so the fact that they equally support women is important. I like seeing companies step up and support men and women… because what we do is just as fun as what the men do.”

The 2021 Aramco Team Series makes its final stop in Jeddah next month at the Royal Green Golf and Country Club, with the future of the competition looking bright. Armas says she hopes to be back in New York next year to put on another Aramco Series, with a date yet to be announced.