By STEVE REED, AP Sports Reporter

SOUTHERN PINES, NC (AP) — Women’s golf is on the rise, and there’s no shortage of momentum among fans and sponsors.

With an abundance of emerging stars gaining notoriety, the sport is attracting more attention – and sponsorships – in the post-Covid era. According to the USGA, ticket sales for this week’s US Women’s Open are up more than 50% from the three-year pre-COVID average.

South Korean Jin Young Ko and American Nelly Korda are not yet known, but are leading the charge. They combined to win nine LPGA Tour tournaments last year. Ranked 1-2 in the world, the two landed on the 2022 Forbes list of the 10 highest paid female athletes in the world.

Ko has raised $4 million through sponsorship deals with LG Electronics, Jeju SamDaSoo mineral water, Korean Air, and Rejuran skincare products. Korda, who returned to action this week after surgery to repair a blood clot in her arm, earned $3.5 million in endorsements with more than 10 sponsors, according to Forbes. She has over 504,000 followers on Instagram.

political cartoons

Lexi Thompson remains one of the biggest draws in women’s golf with her powerful swing alongside former NCAA champion and August Women’s National Amateur Championship winner Jennifer Kupcho, who is coming off her first major championship.

Then there’s 19-year-old Rose Zhang, who could become the biggest crossover player on the LPGA Tour in the next few years since Michelle Wie West, who received immense media attention when she turned pro a week before her 16th birthday in 2005.

Zhang won the 2020 US Women’s Amateur and has been the top amateur in the world ever since. She won the NCAA championship last month as a rookie at Stanford and helped the Cardinal win a national title while racking up an NCAA record average of 69.68.

The youth parade also includes 16-year-old Anna Davis. She turned heads after winning the August Women’s Amateur and twice receiving a sponsor’s waiver to play on the LPGA Tour – making the cut both times. Like the other players this week at the US Women’s Open, Davis was given a new rental car to use to get around Southern Pines.

The only problem is that she doesn’t have a driver’s license.

“Yeah, it’s fine,” she said with a shrug. “It’s a nice car, so I’m okay just sitting in it.”

In all, 22 players under the age of 20 are participating in the US Women’s Open this week and 29 amateurs. The three big American winners last year were 19, 21 and 23 years old.

“Look at all of the fans who continue to get byes or qualify for this championship,” said UGSA senior manager Shannon Rouillard. “We’ve averaged somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 amateurs in this championship over a number of years. I think that’s just talking about the future of the women’s game going forward.

While tomorrow looks bright for women’s football, it’s not looking too bad today, especially overseas, where it’s incredibly popular.

There are approximately 30 accredited international media onsite at Pine Needles this week and approximately 200 more in the USGA Virtual Media Center.

Among the top 10 players in the women’s world rankings, eight are international players. It has been that way for years, as the LPGA Tour was way ahead of the PGA Tour in attracting top players from all corners of the globe.

On Thursday, Sweden’s Ingrid Lindblad recorded the lowest round by an amateur in the 77-year history of the US Women’s Open, a 6-under 65 that left her a shot behind first-round leader Mina Harigae .

Lydia Ko, who was born in South Korea and raised in New Zealand, won her first LPGA event as an amateur at the age of 15. She first reached world No. 1 at age 17 and now has 17 LPGA Tour wins. .

Yuka Saso, who has dual Filipino and Japanese nationality, won the US Women’s Open last year aged 19.

And companies are taking notice.

New Jersey-based technology company Cognizant has invested in golf by becoming a Global Partner of the Presidents Cup, but not without investing in the LPGA Tour as title sponsor of the Founders Cup. It took the purse to $3 million, the largest among regular LPGA events.

Aon, the London-based financial risk insurance company, has created the “Aon Risk-Reward Challenge” bonus for men and women, awarding a $1 million prize to the winner of each tour. KPMG and Chevron first entered the men’s golf market. Both are now the title sponsors of major women’s tournaments and have amassed prize money at record levels.

Total prize money this season reached $90 million, a big jump from $67 million two years ago. That still pales in comparison to the men, who have a deeper heritage and relied on the powerful appeal of Tiger Woods. Purses exceed $425 million on the PGA Tour.

The increase in scholarships is a step in the right direction for women.

USGA chief executive Mike Whan, the former LPGA commissioner, recently added ProMedica, a healthcare company, to sponsor the US Open. The purse nearly doubled from $5.5 million to $10 million in one year. The winner receives $1.8 million, the largest payout ever in women’s golf.

Annika Sorenstam, who returned to play the US Open this week after a 13-year hiatus, was the biggest name in women’s golf for years, amassing 72 wins and 10 majors on the LPGA Tour while winning more than $22 million during his career.

But at 51, her playing career is essentially over.

She is mainly attending the US Open this week to spend time with her family and celebrate her prestigious career.

But Sorenstam, who has spent years helping grow the women’s game through her Annika Academy in Florida, is excited to see where the game is heading with the rising stars.

“It’s been so good, so see that women’s golf is in good hands,” she said.

More AP Golf: https://apnews.com/hub/golf and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.