We naturally assume the inequality between men’s and women’s golf is inching together. That is just the world today, isn’t it? A shrinking pay gap, doughty pros standing up to the tours, brands finally realising the value in their female stars no matter what the velvet blazers at Muirfield might say. In reality, according to Derby-born LPGA Tour star Mel Reid, it’s quite the opposite.
“If I’m completely honest, I think it’s getting worse,” Mel Reid says with knotted frustration. A six-time winner on the European Tour, Reid has just been fitted for new clubs ahead of the 2019 season. After calling up and asking a manufacturer for the two woods which fit best, the response came with abrupt clarity: “We don’t support women’s golf.” Another company, which Reid asked for a set of irons, claimed it only supports men on the European and Challenge Tour.
In July 2018, South Korean golfing phenom, Inbee Park, asked a £400m manufacturer to send her a replacement 3-wood. The seven-time major champion and Olympic gold medallist, who spent over 100 weeks at world No 1, was told she would have to purchase the club at cost price. “That’s a world No 1,” Reid continues exasperatingly. “People have no idea this is going on. It’s an absolute joke.”
“Imagine that happening in the men’s game to the best player in the world. I understand the pay will never be the same, I understand the value of the product, but two of the very biggest companies openly don’t support women’s golf. People don’t know about the struggles LPGA players have to go through just to get equipment.”
It only takes a fleeting glance at a ladies tour event to notice the blank canvases. The sponsorless hats and sleeves, the second-string merchandise roadshows, billboards replaced by tatty windsails. In an area so vast as a golf course, it’s the obnoxiously empty space which is most telltale.
Last year British Open champion Georgia Hall earned less money than poor old Martin Piller, the world No 390, who missed the cut in more than half the PGA Tour events he entered. Rather, in the space of the next six weeks as the LPGA Tour moves from Australia to Thailand, on to Singapore before a 9,000-mile flight back to Arizona, equality is only found in the expenses: the long-haul flights, the hotels, food and entry fees.
Reid has spent four hours this morning practising at the golf range in Jupiter, Florida. Each bay is adorned by a fresh-faced professional hopeful and a Nasa-white dozen-pocketed tour bag. Between 10 or so men, there is around £10,000 worth of free equipment, right down to the moisture detectors and weather-reading accoutrement. The majority of their clubs come from one of the same companies which rebuffed Reid.
“I think girls are scared to come out and name companies because what we get given is already so fragile,” she says of the unarticulated omertà. “We have a lot more to lose by being outspoken. Companies can just turn around and be like ‘well go do one then’. They don’t promote women’s golf.”
In December, Reid broke the silence on another of golf’s archaic taboos, when she became the highest profile player in history to come out as gay. It was a decision she deliberated over for six months; would she get strange looks at dinners on the Tour? Would she feel unsafe in countries where homosexuality is still illegal? A lot of girls, she confides, prefer to “keep it a secret because they are scared companies won’t sponsor them.”
“I hate saying that word – coming out – because I don’t feel it’s necessary,” she says. “Everyone that’s close to me already knew. It was more about ‘listen, I’m brave enough to just be who I am, so for anyone struggling with it – some people kill themselves over this – then hopefully it can help them see that it doesn’t make you a bad person.” The next day, after stepping off the driving range, ten of the golf club’s oldest members approached her to say they’d shown their granddaughters her story.
Reid’s recent move to Florida marks the renaissance of her golfing career, the rise from “rock bottom”. Six years ago, on the way to watch her in a tournament in Germany, her mother was tragically killed in a car crash and the blossoming career of one of Britain’s most exciting golfers was derailed by the agony.
“I didn’t accept it. I felt like a victim and that the world owed me something,” she says. “But you never get over it. There are still times when I pick up the phone and just want to call her.”
“I had to have a hard look at myself. I got right to the very edge, had a look over, and decided I don’t want to live like this anymore.”
“I pulled myself back. I know it’s a bit cliché but I really want to help people, to change the world, and I’m on a platform where I can do that. Why sacrifice it?”
And after almost losing her LPGA Tour membership last year, Reid summoned a new impetus. She sold her house in Derby, to move to Jupiter’s golfing safari park. A little down the road beyond the course which cascades into the ocean lives Rory McIlroy, a little further is Rickie Fowler. Isolated in a golfer’s paradise, shielded from distractions, but still surrounded by friends.
At 31, in a game increasingly dominated by still-teenage stars, Reid knows her hopes of winning multiple majors might never be realised. Something she has, albeit reluctantly, come to peace with. But already feeling freer, and happier, her outspoken ambition is burning again.
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