LPGA Tour takes a step forward

Brian Heard, Women's Golf Reporter

A year ago the LPGA Tour was in turmoil. Panic may not be the right word, but let’s just say there was more than enough anxiety to go around.

To recap: Sponsors were fleeing from the tour in droves – a combination of tough economic times, the growing international influence on tour, the subsequent alienation of some core North American fans and the heavy-handedness of the tour’s management.

As a consequence, a couple handfuls of tournaments stopped operations and rumors were flying that more, including several longtime LPGA stops, were going to call it quits as well.

The players, sensing the growing tide of instability, mutinied, calling for then-LPGA Commissioner Carolyn Bivens’ resignation. A request Bivens granted shortly thereafter.

Speculation about who would replace Bivens was rampant as was talk about whether the tour could survive at all or if it could somehow be morphed into a worldwide tour with the European Tour (LET) and some of the Asian tours (Korean LPGA and Japanese LPGA).

Then last November, the tour announced it had hired Michael Whan as its new commissioner. Whan wasn’t coming from a golf background per se, though he was a marketing executive with TaylorMade Golf for some time.

Whan did come from a business/marketing background, however. And, 10 ½ months into his tenure (he official started Jan. 1), maybe that’s exactly what the LPGA Tour needed – more business and marketing savvy.

Whan’s immediate impact was to apply a little salve to some of the wounded sponsors’ feelings, saving a few tournaments and starting up another. The year began with only 22 events on the calendar, down from 34 in 2008. But thanks in part to Whan’s work there are 26 events on the calendar this year with optimism for more next year.

“We don’t win unless we play,” Whan said earlier this year. “Our business partners don’t win; the charities don’t win; the players don’t win; fans don’t win. We’ve got to play more often; that’s priority No. 1.”

To that end Whan, his staff and some of the players recently returned from what’s being dubbed “a sponsors summit” in New York City, where the LPGA contingent met with current and potential sponsors. For the record, Whan refers to LPGA sponsors as partners, not sponsors.

During those meetings a couple of weeks ago, the tour explained just what makes it a different product than any other professional sport – it’s global from its player base to its sponsors to the media covering it to the fans watching it.

Also, unlike any other mainstream professional sport, fans whether on TV or at the golf course get to see the very best play at every event. It’s not like the PGA Tour, where Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson play one out of every three tournaments. Almost every player in the top 20-25 in the world is playing at every event. Granted, part of that is the dearth of events to be played, but the point is still valid.

What Whan or anybody doesn’t have to fix or tinker with is the quality of play on the LPGA – the product, if you will – because the level of play on tour is higher and deeper than it’s ever been. In addition, more than in any other sport the players are accessible and take ownership in their organization.

“To a lady, they say, ‘We’re all in. Whatever we have to do, we’re all in,’” Whan said of the LPGA players.

And that doesn’t mean just signing some autographs for fans. The tour expects its players to understand who the sponsors of each tournament are and how important they are to the health of the LPGA. And the players, according to Whan, have embraced that.

He told a story how at the Kia Classic in California in March, Christina Kim recognized a Kia vice president behind the ropes at one hole from a picture provided to her by the tour, stopped playing in the middle of the hole, shook his hand and thanked him, telling him she knew the LPGA wouldn’t have this event without his company’s help. Whan said the same vice president called his cell phone two minutes later because he couldn’t believe Kim knew who he was.

More good news has come from the events as well and it has nothing to do with sponsors or fans or Whan’s influence. It’s the excitement this season has brought, despite the early retirement of Lorena Ochoa.

New stars have risen up and some old ones have shone as well. The personable, attractive Ai Miyazato from Japan has won five times this season and is the world’s No. 1. Last year’s Rookie of the Year, 22-year-old Korean Jiyai Shin (No. 3 in the world), continues to light up crowds with her smile and continues to clinically attack golf course, as does Taiwan’s 21-year-old wunderkind Yani Tseng (No. 5 in the world). Lanky, 22-year-old Korean Na Yeon Choi (No. 6 in the world) is a star waiting to bust out. And, Norwegian physical fitness guru Suzann Pettersen (No. 4 in the world) is a special, special player. Six players in fact are within a few points of being No. 1 in the world.

Plus, there has been a resurgence of American influence on tour. Cristie Kerr is No. 2 in the world, Paula Creamer won the U.S. Open and Michelle Wie has had a terrific season, including her second-ever win on tour. In all, six Americans are in the top 20 on the money list – Kerr 5th, Wie 8th, Creamer 11th, Morgan Pressel 12th, Brittany Lincicome 16th and Angela Stanford 18th.

The anxiety of last year has turned into excitement this year. But there’s still a long way to go. The TV contracts for the tour are abysmal. Some tournaments get no coverage at all. Most get delayed broadcast coverage – some at odd hours. No surprise that ratings are reportedly down a little this year.

And there’s still much work to do selling the tour to fans and sponsors alike and getting the schedule back to a point where the tour is out there every week, but there is an optimism surrounding the LPGA that was absent at this time last year. A step in the right direction to be sure.

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