GORDON WHITE: Predictable End: Bivens' Tenure Troubled From Start
If anything in sports was predictable during the last few years it was that Carolyn Bivens would not last as Commissioner of the Ladies Professional Golf Association.
Bivens resigned last Monday just days after receiving a letter signed by numerous prominent LPGA Tour players that strongly suggested she step aside.
Thus ends the most tumultuous era in the history of this oldest and most successful of all women's professional sports organizations that was chartered in 1950.
Bivens leaves the LPGA seriously damaged by a number of her actions during her 3 years and 10 months at the helm. The current economic recession only added to an already chaotic situation this heavy-handed leader created for the tour that was rolling along with a happy future in store when Bivens took over in September 2005.
As the seventh LPGA Commissioner and first woman in that position, Bivens inherited a tour that appeared to be in fine shape. The stars of this generation were performing well enough to attract sizable crowds.
Annika Sorenstam was still dominating the LPGA while a young Mexican, Lorena Ochoa, was showing signs she would challenge the Swedish queen of golf. Karrie Webb of Australia and Se Ri Pak of South Korea were returning to their top form that enabled them to win the first two major titles of 2006. Youngsters such as Paula Creamer, Morgan Pressel, Natalie Gulbis and Christina Kim were attracting fans around the tour.
Bivens took over a healthy group in boom times. What more could she ask for? It seemed that all Bivens had to do was keep everyone happy and not rock the boat.
But right from the start of Bivens' stewardship, observers of the LPGA saw "Trouble in River City."
In one of the most astute early assessments of Bivens' mismanagement, Erik J. Barzeski of the Internet site, "The Sand Trap," wrote on June 22, 2006, "Carolyn Bivens is making a mess of the LPGA Tour, and unless she changes her attitude or someone wises up and cans her, the LPGA Tour may be headed for some bad, bad times." She had been commissioner less than a year at that time.
Others also questioned Bivens' style as seven top executives of the LPGA either quit or were fired by her during that first year of her tenure. Among them was Barb Trammell, the well-respected director of tournament operations for the LPGA, who was fired by Bivens for strong adherence to entry deadline rules involving a high profile player.
Bivens had already created discord between herself and the LPGA Tour's leading player, Annika Sorenstam. Within a few months of Bivens taking the job, the world's No. 1 woman golfer at that time said, "I am quite concerned about some of the decisions and changes I have seen lately. I just wonder where we are headed."
As time went by it became clear that Bivens made little effort to associate with and make friends with her primary product --- the women golfers of the LPGA. She remained aloof and stiff, according to most reports, although some of the players backed her.
Then came her squabbles with reporters and photographers covering the LPGA. She insisted upon new and rather ridiculous rules governing press credentials.
She claimed that all pictures taken by news photographers at an LPGA event were the property of the LPGA. Everyone assumed her next move would be to claim ownership of articles written by sports reporters covering LPGA tournaments.
This led to numerous press entities boycotting two 2007 LPGA tournaments in Hawaii. Finally Bivens backed down on this journalism highway robbery.
Interestingly, Bivens came from the marketing end of a major national newspaper, USA Today. Apparently she did not get the word about freedom of the press in her corner of that newspaper.
But she did her greatest damage to the LPGA Tour in her relations with the key people for any professional golf tour --- the sponsors. She demanded they cough up more money for bigger purses. She also wanted some sponsors to kick in thousands of dollars in order to have fancy electronic scoreboards all around the LPGA tournament courses just like the PGA Tour has.
The LPGA Tour and PGA Tour are separate but not equal in TV ratings, ticket sales and thus value to sponsors.
The LPGA Tour has lost seven events since 2007 due to sponsors dropping out. The tour also lost MacDonald's as sponsor of the LPGA Championship, one of the four women's major championships.
Topping all of this was the worst public relations blunder of Bivens' reign when last year she demanded that all foreign players on this American LPGA Tour learn to speak English or face suspension. This led to such an uproar from the public, press and TV observers that Bivens quickly backed off from another of her foolish ideas.
The LPGA currently has 121 international players from 26 countries. The largest single foreign contingent is 45 players from South Korea.
The day prior to Bivens' "resignation," Eun-Hee Li of South Korea won the U.S.Women's Open Championship at Saucon Valley Country Club in Bethlehem, Pa. Had Bivens' English-speaking order been enforced, this U.S.Open champion would be barred from the LPGA Tour because she does not speak English very well.
Added together, all of these poor management decisions meant Bivens had to go.
That is why Paula Creamer, Morgan Pressel, Lorena Ochoa, Natalie Gulbis, Christie Kerr and Se Ri Pak were among the leading players who signed that letter virtually demanding that Bivens leave.
Marsha Evans, rear admiral USN retired, will serve as acting commissioner until someone is hired to replace Bivens
To her credit, Bivens did accomplish some things without ruffling too many feathers. For one thing, she negotiated a long-term TV agreement with The Golf Channel to cover LPGA events. She also established the first drug testing program in professional golf.
The idea of a commissioner of the LPGA was born out of controversy. But until Bivens came along, the first six commissioners were men who did not create great turmoil. In fact, starting with Ray Volpe, whom I consider to have been the best of the lot, the LPGA Commissioners have been player friendly, sponsor friendly, press friendly, optimistic about the LPGA future and always working to increase the number of events and the size of purses. Usually they were successful even though one or two of the commissioners were not world beaters.
When the LPGA was formed and for its first 20 years of existence, it was a very loosely organized outfit with players serving as operational leaders as well as competitors. There was a series of four "Tournament Directors," starting with Fred Corcoran, a golf promoter of note.
Then in 1970, the LPGA hired an executive director, Bud Erickson.
Also, the LPGA had the normal officers for such an organization -- president, vice president, secretary, treasurer, and board of directors etc. All of them were players themselves. There was really no third party such as a staff of paid employees to watch over all operations of the tour. The players supervised the players despite having tournament directors and then an executive director who had little authority.
This eventually led to serious problems in 1972 when Jane Blalock, a superb young pro golfer from New Hampshire, was accused of cheating by some of her fellow competitors. The officers of the LPGA ordered her suspended.
Blalock sued the LPGA and won on grounds of anti-trust.
In essence, the court said that players cannot bar, for any reason, one of their own from competing for a share of the same pot of money that they are playing for. The court said that if the players wanted to punish a fellow competitor they must organize so that a third party not involved in competition for the prize money is in charge of such discipline.
Ergo, the LPGA reorganized itself in early 1975 in much the same manner as the PGA Tour, which had only recently established its commissioner position. The LPGA created the position of commissioner and a professional staff under that person. None of these people were to be playing members of the LPGA.
The first commissioner was Ray Volpe, a young and talented vice president for marketing for the National Hockey League. He took office July 8, 1975.
Volpe, who had a mind for excellent promotion when the LPGA needed it, was blessed with success, particularly after a young Nancy Lopez joined the LPGA Tour in the summer of 1977. The combination of Volpe and Lopez carried the LPGA to new heights and riches. Lopez charmed the crowds while winning in bunches. She had a smile that would melt an iceberg at the North Pole.
The LPGA Tour and Volpe were also lucky at that time to have a large contingent of other charismatic and excellent golfers such as Jo Anne Carner, Amy Alcott, Kathy Whitworth, Hollis Stacy, Beth Daniel, Pat Bradley, Donna Caponi, Jan Stephenson and others.
Volpe, who served as commissioner for 7 years until replaced by John Laupheimer in 1982, knew very well how to sell these young ladies' golf exploits to sponsors and TV, which was just beginning to pay attention to the women's tour. With Nancy Lopez and her smile drawing ever larger crowds the LPGA was on its way to the success it deserved.
I covered the LPGA Tour regularly back in those days and never worked with a group of athletes more pleasant and more willing to give time for their fans and for reporters' questions and interviews.
I believe a woman should be the next commissioner even though the first woman in the job seemed to be the poorest performer so far. Judy Rankin and Nancy Lopez have been mentioned as candidates for the position. They are excellent choices.
I have a choice of my own for LPGA Commissioner. She is the 53-year-old Hall of Fame golfer, Amy Alcott, who is extremely smart and very charming. Her people skills are excellent and she is also sharp as a tack. Amy, who is a go-getter, is also a former winner of the U.S.Women's Open.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His e-mail is email@example.com.
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