Consider 1st that the Futures Tour's money list leader, Cindy LaCrosse, has earned almost as much as the player in 65th place on the LPGA money list, Sarah Jane Smith. LaCrosse had to do it in 5 more starts than Smith, but look at how their stats stack up.
Scoring Average: LaCrosse 69.53, Smith 72.04
Birdie Rate: LaCrosse 4.03, Smith 2.91
Greens in Regulation: LaCrosse .739, Smith .687
Putting Average: LaCrosse 28.77, Smith 30.53
Maybe all this shows is that the courses on the Futures Tour are a lot easier than those on the LPGA, but aren't the differences striking?
Consider next that Kristie Smith, who's spent most of the season leading the LET's Rookie of the Year race until In-Kyung Kim overtook her last week, has won once in 4 starts on the Futures Tour and has earned enough (just over $20K) to sit at #21 on their money list. The closest player to $20K on the LPGA, Allison Fouch, has the 102nd spot nailed down on their money list right now, but it took her 9 starts to get there. Because Smith has played so few FT events, she's not eligible to be listed on their stats page, but we do know her scoring average is 70.00 while Fouch's is 74.33. Again, this might be explainable simply by positing that it's easier to score on the FT, and we find some support for it by looking at Smith's LET scoring average (73.00). However, given Smith's LET birdie rate of 3.56 exceeds Fouch's of 2.46, her LET greens in regulation rate of .722 blows away Fouch's of .591, and that her LET putting average of 30.58 is comparable to Fouch's of 30.55, isn't it just possible that Smith has been playing better than Fouch this year? That is, isn't it possible that the #21 player on the Futures Tour is playing better than the #102 player on the LPGA?
Of course, Fouch herself made the leap from the Futures Tour to the LPGA relatively recently. And a couple of years ago, back when she was playing well, she made an interesting observation, in response to the question of what she learned about the LPGA that she would want to pass along to Futures Tour players:
I would tell them that the way they hit the ball, putt and chip is good enough or better than the bottom half of the LPGA Tour. Other than the top 30 players in the world, stop putting the LPGA Tour players on such high pedestals. With the exception of the top 10 finishers each week, the rest of the LPGA field is shooting around even par. I think it's easy to get lost in what the winners are shooting, rather than looking at the entire field. Sure, the top players in the world get up and down from 100 yards most of the time, but the best players on the Duramed FUTURES Tour have just as much talent. It's a matter of getting experience. Good wedge play and making more birdies was something my game needed to get better to take that next step, and I did it over time. The biggest thing, though, was surrounding myself by people who continuously pointed me in the right direction. You have to manage your game, your thoughts, your emotions, your everything with a lot of help. That has to start before you get to the LPGA.
I've been looking at stats for a lot of players on the LPGA this season, in preparation for my next Best of the LPGA ranking update, and what I found surprised me. Key performance indicators like greens in regulation and putts per green in regulation, along with key results like scoring average and birdies per round, seem quite low to me for the vast majority of the LPGA. Outside the very top tier of players and their lead chase pack, I haven't seen very many with very impressive stats. Only 52 players are hitting greens in regulation more than 65% of the time. Only 52 players are taking fewer than 1.82 putts per green in regulation. Only 55 players have scoring averages below 72.50. Only about 60 players are averaging 3 birdies or more per round. So I would go so far as to argue that there are only about 50 LPGAers who are clearly better than any given top 50 player on the Futures Tour.
Now, it's true that not all top Futures Tour graduates excel immediately on the LPGA. Song-Hee Kim's early struggles on the LPGA are well-known. Vicky Hurst is only beginning to learn how to compete on the LPGA. And Mina Harigae will need to turn it on in the 2nd half of the season to break into the top 100 on the money list and avoid Q-School. It does take time to adjust to courses, travel, and competition on the LPGA. Plus, many players don't stay on the big tour for long. But my point isn't about individuals. It's about odds. The 200 or so professional golfers competing regularly in the United States who aren't among the LPGA's top 50 are very closely bunched together, whatever tour they play exclusively or regularly on.
Why is this so? Part of the reason is that so many former LPGAers or part-time LPGAers play regularly on the Futures Tour. Part of the reason is that the Futures Tour continues to attract top young talent from around the world who don't want to start their professional careers on European or Asian tours. And part of the reason is that the next generation of top American golfers is really good. Over time, they're all going to swell the ranks of the really good players on the LPGA to 75 or 100 players.
But until that happens, the LPGA would do well to rethink its membership and priority status categories. I would recommend shrinking Category 1 to the top 70 on the previous year's money list, down from the top 80 as it stands now. I would expand Category 9 from the top 5 on the previous year's Futures Tour money list to the top 10. And I would expand Category 11, which is currently designed to take 20 players from #81 to #100 on the money list and the top 20 finishers from Q-School, to take players from #71 to #90 on the money list and the top 30 from Q-School. Along with the other categories up to and including #13 (an early promotion for any 3-time Futures Tour winners), all you'd then need to do to make room for this group of "fully exempt" golfers would be to expand all "regular-season" full-field events from 144 to 156 spots, as Hound Dog called for back in April.
In addition, the LPGA would do well to focus on radically expanding the Futures Tour. The measure of any tour's success is how many players can make a living on it. With its small purses, the Futures Tour is not currently a break-even proposition for most of its members. Rather than seeking to raise purses, the Tour's organizers should be focused on expanding playing opportunities, getting more tournaments on the schedule and giving everyone more chances to make cuts and cash checks. $100K purses for new Futures Tour events and $1M purses for new domestic LPGA events would give the non-elite players competing regularly on the U.S. more chances to hone their games and their minds.
If the LPGA and Futures Tour don't take these measures, or similar ones, then fewer international golfers will seek to compete professionally in the United States and more and more American golfers will decide they're better off starting their professional careers abroad. If they do, however, it won't be long before the level of competition on the Futures Tour exceeds the LET and even the KLPGA.
[Update 1 (8/6/10, 4:23 am): If you haven't been reading the comments thread on this post, you should. Because it has a bearing on a very interesting idea that Mike Southern just floated over at Ruthless Golf.]