LPGA season off to a rocky start — no locker room access, practice facilities restricted at TOC

ORLANDO, Florida – There’s no locker room for players here at the LPGA’s season-opener, an event designed to celebrate those who have hoisted trophies over the past two years. Don’t be surprised to see players at the Hilton Grand Vacation Tournament of Champions changing their shoes in the parking lot.

Lake Nona Golf and Country Club has a men’s locker room that would’ve been more than suitable for the 29 players in the field. LPGA players can use the bathrooms and showers in the women’s facility, but there’s no place for them to store anything while they’re on the course. That area is also not private.

Matilda Castren can’t imagine something like this playing out on the PGA Tour. Grant Waite, a former winner on the PGA Tour, was on the range at Lake Nona on Tuesday working with his student, Jodi Ewart Shadoff, and confirmed that he never played in a PGA Tour event that didn’t have access to a locker room.

Castren was as shocked about the locker room situation as she was about the player fact sheet that came out on Jan. 14, laying out restrictions for when players had access to practice facilities at Nona. In the memo, players were informed that they “may not use the practice facilities more than one hour prior to their practice tee times. Use of the practice facilities is not available unless playing a practice round.”

Castren inquired with an LPGA rules official about the situation on Monday and was told that it was non-negotiable with the tournament, but that the LPGA wouldn’t be strictly policing it.

“The guys would never agree to an hour of practice each day,” Castren said.

Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions 2022

Danielle Kang reacts after winning the 2022 Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions at Lake Nona Golf & Country Club on January 23, 2022, in Orlando. (Photo: Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)

An LPGA official said what was written on the memo applied to last Sunday only, though there’s a section on the memo directly underneath the lines in dispute that read, “Sunday, January 15th” in bold and underlined type, followed by four lines explaining the rules specifically laid out for Sunday.

Aaron Stewart, VP of sports marketing at Hilton Grand Vacations, said that players were never restricted to one hour of practice and were free to practice even without scheduling a practice round.

“Once they have their credentials,” he said, “it’s their course.”

As for the locker room, a tour official said that due to the hospitality setup, the men’s locker room had to remain open to the public to utilize the restrooms, and that they were unable to create a private and secure locker room for LPGA players.

Stewart said they planned to order lockers for the week and use an area on the lower level of the clubhouse next to player dining for players in the field, but the tour itself changed course.

“I don’t know why they canceled the lockers,” he said.

An LPGA statement on the situation noted that the space offered to add temporary lockers did not include a bathroom area, and that due to a prioritization of that space for other player uses, the tournament team opted not to pursue that option.

“We are always open to player feedback,” the statement continued, “and work with our tournament partners to allocate finite space.”

Ryann O’Toole is sharing a car with a player this week, which makes working out of the trunk less than ideal.

“I’m not mad at the club; I’m not mad at the sponsor,” said O’Toole. “I’m annoyed at the LPGA for that just being an overlooked factor.”

One veteran LPGA player said that, in general, she often viewed how a club felt about hosting an event based on the locker room situation. If LPGA players were allowed to use the men’s locker room, typically the larger and nicer facility at a club, she felt particularly welcomed. Often times the club member would leave a note inside the locker wishing her luck.

The locker room isn’t just a place to store valuables and a change of clothes. It’s also an oasis for players to gather their thoughts away from the rest of the world.

“You should have a certain standard,” said Castren.

While the TOC has always been known for its party atmosphere with concerts, on-course music and a celebrity division, it’s also billed to be an elite event filled with the LPGA’s brightest stars, though a number are notably absent this year with the tour taking a full month off after the TOC.

Stewart said 43 playing professionals who compete on tours around the world call Lake Nona home.

World No. 1 Lydia Ko, who isn’t in the field this week because she recently got married and went on her honeymoon, has a house here. Annika Sorenstam, who will be competing in the celebrity portion of the event, has called Lake Nona home for decades. This is where the first Solheim Cup was contested in 1990. Players rave about the place.

LPGA commissioner Mollie Marcoux Samaan has talked often about placing an emphasis on performance excellence. She’s focused on putting together a strong schedule with big purses, but also on the small, important things that are needed to help players perform.

“So how do we create an environment for everyone within our ecosystem to reach their own peak performance?” she asked during a press conference last year in Singapore.

“And that goes to the things I just talked about, making it as easy as possible for our women to get the most sleep that they need, to eat properly when they come to tournaments, to have the administration taking care of them so they can focus on being the best that they can be.”

That would, of course, include the basics of a proper locker room setup and practice facilities, as well as strong, clear communication.

An LPGA official confirmed that Marcoux Samaan was unaware of either situation prior to Tuesday.

The year is off to a rocky start.