GORDON WHITE: Signs Point to Happy New Year for Women's Tour
When the Ladies Professional Golf Association fired its controversial commissioner, Carolyn Bivens, last July, there was great hope that things would improve for the beleaguered women's golf circuit.
Only time will tell as the new commissioner, Michael Whan, works at the job he began two days ago.
The measure of a pro golf tour's success is traditionally two factors: Total purse money for the year and number of events. Bivens cannot be blamed entirely for a drop in these two factors on the LPGA Tour during the last two years. The nation's and world's economic woes played a big part in the decline.
But the 44-year-old Whan, a former golf equipment company executive, will be expected to hustle up more purse money and add more tournaments to the schedule, particularly if the economy improves.
When Bivens took over in 2005, she inherited a schedule for that year of 34 events with purses totaling $45 million. Two years later those 34 events were worth a total of $54 million in purses.
But things began to sour and the 2008 schedule was down by one event. Then last year the LPGA Tour had only 31 events as the total purse money dropped by $5 million. That schedule was made up well before the recession hit the fan. Therefore, players looked to Commissioner Bivens as the primary cause for the decrease and decided they wanted her to go.
Things appear to be worse for 2010. But actually the LPGA may be turning the corner even though its official schedule for this year shows only 24 tournaments and total purses worth something a bit under $40 million.
The reason that things may be looking up despite that drop in number of tournaments for the 2010 LPGA, is that some long time sponsors stepped up to help in a big way.
ShopRite, which sponsored an LPGA tourney on the New Jersey shore near Atlantic City for years before moving away three years ago, is taking the tournament back to the Jersey shore. The Bell Micro Classic in Mobile, Ala., is returning after a one-year absence.
Then Wegmans, the 94-year-old Rochester, N.Y., grocery store chain salvaged the LPGA Championship after McDonald's dropped that women's major championship following the 2009 event. Wegmans will conduct the LPGA Championship at the Locust Hill Country Club in Pittsford, N.Y., a suburb of Rochester, June 24--27.
For many years, Wegmans has staged the annual LPGA Rochester tournament that is one of the oldest stops on the tour. Back when Nancy Lopez was the star of the LPGA Tour the Rochester event was sponsored by Sarah Conventry. It was later called the Rochester International. It has been held at the Locust Hill CC all the time and for the last few years it was Wegmans Rochester Classic.
Wegmans is simply taking the former Rochester LPGA event and turning it into the LPGA Championship, which is one of the four women's major championships. The other three women's majors are the USGA Women's Open, the British Women's Open and the Kraft Nabisco Championship, formerly the Colgate Dinah Shore Championship, which is the first women's major each year.
Of course, this move from a regular tour event to a major championship caused Wegman to increase the purse considerably to $2,250,000 for the 2010 LPGA Championship.
Some critics of the LPGA say that the tour has too many events outside the United States. I disagree with that assessment although I believe there are just about enough foreign events on the tour now.
The LPGA has many foreign players so why not play in some of their countries? Also, if foreign companies are willing to put up big cash for purses if the LPGA holds tourneys in their countries, then go to where the money is.
I suggest that Commissioner Whan increase the number of LPGA tournaments by adding more events in the United States while keeping what he has in foreign countries. After all, 11 of the 24 official money events on the LPGA Tour this year are going to be held in a total of 10 foreign countries. The 2010 tour opens with a couple of tournaments in Southeast Asia, starting in Thailand, Feb. 18-21, followed by Singapore, Feb. 25-28.
China, Japan, Mexico, Canada, France, England, Jamaica and South Korea are the other foreign sites during the year.
There are signs that Michelle Wie will come into her own as the highly regarded player everyone thought she could become when she was a very green amateur.
The capable Stanford student from Hawaii earned considerable new respect with her performance in the Solheim Cup matches last year.
The long hitter, who has troubles on greens, finished in the top 10 eight times during 2009, her rookie year as a professional. She also got her first victory on the LPGA Tour. If she stays away from men's tour events and concentrates on what she should be doing on the LPGA Tour, Wie may very well be the next great hope of the LPGA Tour.
After all, the golf tours have always been driven by the popularity of individual golfers such as Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Lee Trevino and Tiger Woods on the men's tour and Mickey Wright, Nancy Lopez, JoAnne Carner, Amy Alcott, Annika Sorenstam and Lorena Ochoa on the women's tour.
Let's hope that LPGA Commissioner Michael Whan does a good job. He seems entirely capable and sounds very positive without being arrogant about it the way Carolyn Bivens was. These are good signs for the future.
Maybe a bit of Whan and a touch of Wie are just what the LPGA needs for a very Happy New Year.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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