Back in May 2021, Mollie Marcoux Samaan was unanimously elected as commissioner of the LPGA, succeeding Mike Whan.
The Tour’s ninth commissioner in its 70-plus year history, Marcoux Samaan comes to the ladies’ helm by way of her alma matter, Princeton University, where she was a two-sport athlete (ice hockey and soccer) and the school’s athletic director from 2014-21, following a near 20-year executive career at Chelsea Piers Management.
In the waning days of ’21, the commissioner spoke with Judd Spicer a half-year into the job.
Chatting about a range of subjects – from growing LPGA purse money to leaving a historic major championship playing site to the spread of sports gambling – the new commish let it be known that the competitive drive from her own playing days is still very much a part of her vibe, and her purview.
Golf News Net: It would seem on your list of top priorities that growing purses, finding groundbreaking venues, establishing more events and enhancing TV time would appear to be leading initiatives. Any ranking order for these priorities?
Mollie Marcoux Samaan: The most important things we do are provide the very best playing opportunities with the highest-possible purses, efficient geographic flow (for events) and partnering with the very best sponsors.
But there are several other priorities. I also care deeply about investing in the holistic player experience, and working on their performance environment, from physiological to psychological. The: What is Their Environment Like on Tour.
And I also think there’s a huge opportunity to continue to grow our technology, our media, the use of data, our fan engagement.
GNN: While the LPGA is readying for a record-setting year of total purse money, you've also recently addressed the substantial pay gap between PGA Tour and LPGA talent (with the men set to play for well over $400 million this year). Your Tour's increases considered, that's still quite a cash chasm. What amount, in your view, would be a more acceptable gap?
MMS: We want to work towards pay equity, just as everybody in society wants to work toward that. We’re more focused on continuing to grow our purses, continuing to grow opportunities for our women and making sure the world understands the significant talent and skill of our athletes. They are the best in the world, and we want to continue to work toward their being compensated for their unique and extreme talent.
And that pay gap is larger at the lower-end of the official money. So, we’re looking at that as well, looking at all areas of the leaderboard, and seeing how we can continue to grow not just the top players who drive a lot of our success, but also the middle and the bottom of those leaderboards, so everybody has opportunity to make a living which is commensurate with their talent.
GNN: Speaking of the men: Bubba Watson's omnipresence at this past fall's Solheim was refreshing, and, in the minds of many, represented a long-overdue example of PGA Tour players needing to show more support of and for the LPGA. Do you want to see more examples of this?
MMS: I think we’re all connected, and there are a lot of great relationships between the men and women players. But there is a great opportunity for cross-Tour engagement and highlighting our players even more. And I think there is a lot of support coming from the PGA Tour, but, yeah, more is always better.
Competing at the Olympics has been a great example of men and women competing at the same course and, if the course is set-up properly, seeing them shoot the same scores.
GNN: We’ve had a December taste of men’s and women’s crossover play at the QBE Shootout and PNC Championship events, respectively. Would you like to see more of this?
MMS: Absolutely. And I think everybody has been working for that for years, trying to find a great way to combine the top women and the top men playing together. Figuring out the details and logistics of that is challenging, but certainly possible. I hope we’ll get there very soon, and there are lots of good conversations happening.
GNN: Among your growing purses, the newly-branded Chevron Championship is right near the top, up $1.9 million more than this past season. With the October announcement that this year’s event in the desert will be its last before moving to Houston, what are your thoughts and feelings about leaving Mission Hills CC after this year?
MMS: I think the traditions of the LPGA and the traditions of Mission Hills have been wildly-important to the LPGA, and are very much valued, just as the support from the people in the desert has been phenomenal over the years. I just think the confluence of needs is where the Tour sort of required the next move. It doesn’t take away at all from the tremendous history that’s been there and the gratitude that we have for that experience; we’ll always value that traditional and try to bring some of it forward. I certainly understand that it can be hard when change occurs, but I think for the growth of the Tour and the opportunities that exist, we need to continue to move forward. With the TV window that we’re really looking for at a major championship, and with ANA obviously stepping away, we need to fund the event.
So, we’re really excited about the Chevron Championship and excited about that partnership and excited to take the LPGA to the next level with this event. But I do understand the disappointment for those who have supported this event for so long.
GNN: As a follow-up: Critics of this move would seem to be in the (vast) minority, but what do you say to those who believe that, in leaving the desert's vast Dinah/Kraft/ANA vast history (dating back to 1972; a major since '83) that the LPGA is eschewing tradition for dollars?
MMS: Again, I certainly understand that people love the LPGA, but it is our job to provide playing opportunities for our players. And we had to find a replacement for the sponsor, and we need to keep moving forward. It’s our responsibility to continue to grow the opportunities. You’re always balancing priorities, but we decided that this priority was most important as we continue to grow.
GNN: Any plans for a final goodbye to Mission Hills?
MMS: We’re still working on all the details, and I’ll save that for another time as we put those plans together. It will be a nice celebration of all the tradition and history that’s existed at Mission Hills, and we’ll certainly do something fun and exciting as we close out our time there.
GNN: The LPGA has become such a global game that some believe the impressive, eastern influence on women's golf has become a detriment to domestic messaging and marketing. Do you feel the need to better connect the Tour with the western fan base? And, if so, is it incumbent on you do that, or is it the players' responsibility?
MMS: We want the world to see the global talent on our Tour. So, we’re constantly working with our whole team to provide that environment for the fans to know our players – in the East and the West. It’s a global Tour with remarkable players; we’re very proud of that, and I do think of our significant, competitive advantage that we’re highlighting this talent from all around the world.
We’ll continue to do that, continue to provide the environment that each player needs to be successful and reach their peak performance. And it’s for the whole world to see our players; I don’t think it’s an East or West thing. We’re proud of how diverse our Tour is, and I think it makes it so exciting for the world to see.
GNN: While most (if not all) pro sports commissioners were once sheepish, if not bullish, in their respective, anti-gambling stances, we're, of course, in a brave new world in that respect. Especially-considering your history with college athletics, what are your views of the both the opportunities – and potential plights – of the growing business of sports' gambling?
MMS: You have to understand both sides of that, and ensure all the right controls are in place and manage it properly. But one of the things I am excited about is that I think gambling will continue to draw attention to our athletes, continue to drive interest in what our women do. That engagement in our product, our athletes, is very much a positive.
But it is a brave, new world and one that we’re evaluating very carefully to make sure we do it right.