A look ahead at the 2011 LPGA Tour

Brian Heard, Women's Golf Reporter

As the 2011 season finally gets underway this weekend in Taiwan at the Honda LPGA Thailand event, it’s natural to ask the question what’s new for the LPGA in 2011?

First, let’s start with what isn’t. As in 2010 expect each week to be a battle with the depth on tour continuing to get, well, deeper. And expect the level of play to be as high as it’s ever been on tour.

And just like in 2010 expect plenty of changes atop the World Golf Rankings from week to week – the top six players in the world (in descending order) Yani Tseng, Jiyai Shin, Suzann Pettersen, Cristie Kerr, Na Yeon Choi and Ai Miyazato are all closely grouped at the top of the charts. The rankings can and will change for the leaders with every week of play.

Unfortunately for the LPGA, what’s not new as well is the number of events on the schedule – just 24 official stops, the same as a year ago, which is still 10 fewer than the tour had in 2008.

Now to answer the original question of what is new. Of those 24 stops, only 14 are in North America (13 in the U.S., 1 in Canada), that’s down two from a year ago. And of those, one is new (sort of) and one has fueled controversy among fans and players alike. The two new stops are in Asia – the Imperial Springs LPGA in China Aug. 4-7 and the LPGA Taiwan Championship from Oct. 20-23.

Founders Cup controversy

The first stop on domestic soil for the LPGA comes in Phoenix from March 18-20 at the RR Donnelley LPGA Founders Cup. The event is a tribute to the 13 women – Alice Bauer, Patty Berg, Bettye Danoff, Helen Dettweiler, Marlene Bauer Hagge, Helen Hicks, Opal Hill, Betty Jameson, Sally Sessions, Marilyn Smith, Shirley Spork, Louise Suggs and Babe Didrickson Zaharias – who founded the LPGA Tour back in 1950.

The controversy? The 132-player field will be playing for a mock purse of $1.3 million. All winnings will be given to the LPGA’s Foundation to help its effort to promote golf to younger girls with its LPGA-USGA Girls Golf program. Earnings will count in the tour’s money list as will points for player-of-the-year and rookie-of-the-year rankings, but the only money the players will actually receive will be to offset their travel, room-and-board and caddying expenses.

The idea was first brought up by LPGA Commissioner Michael Whan at a player’s meeting last June.

“I’m sure there were plenty of members of my staff holding their breath as I presented the idea of Founders Cup 2011,” Whan told Golf World. “At the time we hadn’t thought of title sponsors or anything else. I took them through the entire presentation of why I thought this was the right thing to do. This was in the middle of 2010 too. So we are dealing with the economy and schedules and everything else. At the end of the presentation, there was no discussion. Everybody stood up and applauded. There was a standing ovation. It was a strange and exciting, just instant reaction.”

But that was last year. There have been rumblings from players that with so few tournaments (i.e., money-making opportunities) during the season to begin with, it seems strange to play one for free.

“We’re only going to have nine or 10 [full-field] domestic events and we’re going to play one of them free?” Juli Inkster told GolfChannel.com. “It seems like if you have a sponsor, why wouldn’t you play for a purse?”

Even after the alleged standing ovation when Whan told the players about the idea, he has admitted receiving “at least 50” emails from players with suggestions on how to improve the Founders Cup.

Most mentioned some sort of split between player earnings and the charitable donation – 50-50 perhaps.

The Titleholders

The new U.S. event is really an old one and an alteration to the season-ending Tour Championship. It is the final event of the season, simply called the Titleholders, played in Orlando from Nov. 17-20.

The Titleholders was an event before the LPGA was even formed, dating back to 1937. Like the PGA Tour’s Masters, it was held in Augusta, Georgia – at Augusta Country Club not at Augusta National – and the winner received a green jacket. It was discontinued in 1966, reinstated for a year in 1972 and was considered a major.

This reincarnation is not a major but as its predecessor, the LPGA Tour Championship, it will be a prestigious event. Instead of the top 120 on the money list, the field for the LPGA Championship, the Titleholders is reserved only for players who finish in the top three of any official LPGA event during the season.

The Mexican problem

When the 2011 LPGA schedule was announced in January, there were 25 official events. Two of them in Mexico – the Lorena Ochoa Invitational in Guadalajara in November and the Tres Marias Championship in Morelia in April. But due to recent violent attacks by gunmen on tourists and on local police in the area and a security warning posted by the U.S. State Department for the state of Michoacán (of which Morelia is the capital), the LPGA cancelled the event this year.

The event’s demise leaves a gaping hole in the schedule, a problem the LPGA had a year ago and had worked hard to avoid this year. There are now no tournaments for four weeks between the Kraft Nabisco (March 31-April 3) and the Avnet LPGA Classic (April 28-May 1).

The growing international trend

One of the unique traits of the LPGA is its undeniable international flavor. Some North American fans have voiced their concerns over this fact. But it’s not going to change any time soon. There will be 123 international players on tour this year representing 25 countries. Of the 28 rookies on tour, 11 are international players.

Including the biennial Solheim Cup in September in Ireland and the unofficial HSBC Brazil Cup in May, the tour will play in 13 different countries in 2011.

The future

Eight-year veteran and fan favorite Christina Kim, a two-time winner winner on tour, recently had this to say about the LPGA’s current state of affairs: “I’m a fairly positive person and we will have to take advantage of the situation and expand the brand of women’s golf worldwide. Obviously, I’d love to have 30, 35, 40 events on our schedule this year, but we won’t see that for a few years. The economy just won’t let us right now. It’s going to be tough for the rookies and those outside the top 50 on the money list, but where we’re at right now is we have to follow the money. … We just have to do whatever we can to stay afloat.”

When Whan began his tenure a year ago he was rightfully lauded for mending relationships with sponsors and keeping as many as eight tournaments alive that were rumored to be losing title sponsors. But he and his staff haven’t been able to lure in many new sponsors, at least for this year.

That said, he has hinted that there could be three tournaments added to the schedule next year and that doesn’t include the probable return of the Tres Marias and the definite return of the Jamie Farr Classic, which is taking a one-year hiatus this year. That could push the schedule closer to 30 events for 2012. And that would, of course, be a step in the right direction.

 

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