How do men and women fare on the same course? We find out this week

leona mcguire ewen ferguson

Leona Maguire and Ewen Ferguson play tee shots from the same tee box Thursday at the ISPS Handa World Invitational.

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While most of the golf world focuses on the start of the FedEx Cup Playoffs this week, a completely different golf tournament is being held in Northern Ireland. With an absolute mouthful of a name — the ISPS Handa World Invitational presented by Aviv Clinics — the event actually teaches us more about the game at large than the PGA Tour-ified setup taking place in Memphis. 

Up in Ballymena — on the way from Belfast to Portrush, for those who attended the 2019 Open Championship — this week’s event is a men’s tournament held at the exact same time as the women’s tournament, on the same courses. 

Packed tee sheet

There are 132 men and 132 women competing in their respective fields. That’s 264 competitors, for those keeping track at home. In order to get all these people to card scores in an orderly manner, two courses are needed: Galgorm Castle and Massereene Golf Club. 

Galgorm Castle is based in the center of Ballymena while Massereene is down on the shore of Lough Neagh, creating a much different vibe at each. Half of the men’s field and half of the women’s field plays at each course in alternating tee times. So if you’re looking for a difference in scores, there won’t be any real weather draw difference between the men and women. As it should be. 

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The yardages speak from themselves

Take a look at the yardages being played from for each event. At Massereene GC, the women’s 1st hole (385 yards) actually measures longer than the men’s (365). That makes it a true driver-short iron for the ladies, compared to potentially drivable for the men.

Then take a look at the 6th hole, where both men and women will play from the same tee boxes around 460 yards. For the men, that’s a long par-4. For the women, it’s a par-5, amounting to the only par difference on the front side. For those nine holes, it’s a men’s par-36 and a women’s par-35, from nearly the exact same distance. 

Something similar takes place on the back nine, keeping the men’s par to 35 around 3,500 yards. The women’s plays to a 35 from 3,350. When the event is over, you’ll find that these differences, though slight, are exactly what it takes to challenge each group in their different ways. They’re still trying to miss the same bunkers, land on the same greens, find the same fairways. 

“I think we’re on a lot of the same tees as the guys in Massareene,” Leona Maguire said. “So I think it’s very much you’ll make your score at Galgorm, keep it tight around Massareene, and, yeah, try to go low on Galgorm on the weekend then.”

They’re not competing against each other … kind of 

But they also sort of are. Ewen Ferguson raced out to an early lead in the event when he shot the course record Thursday with a 61 on the longer Galgorm Castle course. Atop the women’s field was three golfers with 67, shot on both courses. Does that matter? We’ll talk about it Sunday night. 

Last year the men’s event topped out at 13 under par while the ladies reached 16 under for the championship. It’s a testament to tournament officials and their fair setup that both fields of 132 can produce winners of such a same score. That’s the beauty of how many half-par holes tournament officials inject into each competition. It’s also just a reminder that the best women in the world are worth watching just as much as the best men in the world. If their scores are just as birdie-filled, just as entertaining, then their golf is just as worth watching, too.

More mixing, the better

For years PGA Tour and LPGA Tour commissioners have been asked about a joint event. They’ve never done it. But could they? Undoubtedly. And in a game looking for new flair, what would a co-ed competition at Pebble Beach in the spring look like?

It would have to be a lot of fun. If not Pebble, then could we combine the LA events in February? The Genesis Invitational is already a limited field, and is just down the street from where the LPGA tees off in April at Wilshire Country Club. This week’s courses are 12 miles apart. Wilshire and Riviera? Twelve miles apart. Listen in on some of the press conferences this week and it’s clear this isn’t just a great experience for fans. It’s great for the pros, too.

“It’s really cool,” local Northern Irishwoman Stephanie Meadow said. “I think it’s fun, you know, bump in to people that were mutual friends with. To see the guys, you’re not used to hearing the noise of the compression hitting balls next to you.

“I think it’s awesome. I think it’s just a really fun experience for all the fans to be able to see two different sides of the game in one spot and how we do things maybe a little differently, but still kind of come out with the same end, awesome result.”

Sean Zak Editor

Zak is a writer at GOLF Magazine and just finished a book about the summer he spent in St. Andrews.