By Andrew Both
(Reuters) - The Japanese LPGA Tour quietly celebrated its 50th season this year with a full schedule and legitimate claims to being more popular than the country's stagnant men's circuit.
With 38 tournaments in 2017, and only one vacant week on the schedule between March and November, the JLPGA Tour’s total prize money of 3.7 billion yen ($32.66 million) gives players the chance to earn a very good living without having to leave for the elite U.S. women's tour.
By comparison, the Japanese men's tour will have just 25 tournaments next year, one fewer than 2017.
The Japanese women's circuit also draws bigger galleries and domestic television audiences than the men's tour, with an average Sunday rating some 30 percent higher, according to a tournament promoter who has viewed the official figures.
JLGPA Commissioner Hiromi Kobayashi says many Japanese companies prefer to sponsor women’s tournaments because the players make a big effort to ensure the pro-am is an enjoyable experience for those footing the bill.
It does not hurt that the women also play a game that the average player can relate to, she says.
“Most of the sponsors say that is the difference between the men’s and the female pros,” Kobayashi told Reuters.
“The guests have fun with the female pros, who hit driver almost the same length. That’s what they say. The players are friendly and so the guests can have a good time with the female pros.”
The pro-ams are so important to the tour that rookie players are required to attend a full-day seminar to learn business etiquette and how to entertain clients.
And by keeping prize money at a relatively modest level, sponsorship of the tour is also affordable to many companies, a business model that helps maintain a full schedule.
Nevertheless, prize money has been nudging up recently, increasing over the last six years to a record in 2017. The 2018 schedule again features 38 tournaments and prize money of 37 million yen.
Six players topped the 100 million yen mark this year, led by Ai Suzuki’s 140 million yen ($1.25 million). By comparison, Park Sung-hyun, the leading money earner on the U.S.-based LPGA Tour, raked in $2.35 million in prize money last year.
Of the six Japanese members of the LPGA Tour in 2017, Haru Nomura was the highest earner with $520,000.
The U.S. LPGA, which plays a global schedule, had total prize money of $65 million, which includes $24 million for a dozen tournaments played outside North America.
The standard of competition is not as high in Japan, and the average purse of about 1 million yen is less than the LPGA, but the twin attractions of playing a full schedule and short-distance travel has attracted the likes of Shin Ji-yai, a two-times British Open winner who quit the United States to play in Japan.
Kobayashi, a former top player who won four times during her days on the LPGA Tour, said the three-day tournaments are one of the Tour's biggest attractions.
“An event is cheaper (to sponsor) than the men, and only one-third of our tournaments are four-day events. The rest are over three rounds,” she said.
South Korean Shin won 11 times on the LPGA circuit before deciding she preferred to play primarily in Japan, only a two-hour flights from home.
She has an apartment in Tokyo and enjoys the chance to unwind for a couple of days between events, before catching a short flight or high-speed train ride to the next event.
“On Sundays I go back to my place, take off a couple of days to relax and refresh, so it feels like my life balance is much better,” said Shin, who has racked up 17 wins in Japan.
She said the women’s tour was more popular than the men’s in Japan, just like her native South Korea.
“People like their passion and kindness,” she said of the women’s players.
“So many people come out to cheer for us, and it makes it so exciting, so much fun,” said Shin, who speaks fluent Japanese as well as English.
“I am very comfortable here.”
Not that the JLPGA does not have its challenges, among them the near invisibility of their tournaments outside the country, with the exception of South Korea.
"The JLPGA does not even have an English website,” said Junko Ogawa, a veteran golf journalist whose website, tochro-golf.com, chronicles the sport in Japan.
"The Korea LPGA, China LPGA and even the Thai LPGA have English websites, but not Japan.
"That is a real problem. It means anyone who can't read Japanese cannot find out anything about the tour."
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)