Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 1, 2010

Badly Needing The Next Annika

While golf fans and gawkers alike await the return of Tiger Woods at next week’s Masters, the first major tournament of the professional golf season will actually be played this week, with much less fanfare and focus than will be the case in Augusta come April 8th. The LPGA’s Kraft Nabisco Championship began today in Rancho Mirage, California.

Remarkably, while next week’s Masters will be the sixteenth official 2010 event for the PGA, this week’s Nabisco is just the fourth tournament of the year for U.S. women professionals. Any player whose game shows signs of rust certainly has an excuse. For the year, the LPGA calendar has as many off weeks as it does tournaments. As if the twenty-six blank spots on the tour’s calendar aren’t bad enough, almost half of the tournaments that are scheduled will be played outside of the U.S., with five in Asia, four in Mexico or the Caribbean, two in Europe and one in Canada.

Loyalists may try pointing to this schedule as proof of the global appeal of women’s golf. The reality is that for two of the Asian events and both tournaments in Europe the American tour is piggy-backing on events sanctioned by the European, Korean, or Japanese women’s tours. The stark bottom line of American women’s golf is that in 2010 its top professional tour will hold just fourteen events on American soil. These have to be grim times at LPGA headquarters in Daytona Beach.

The women’s tour has been in a sudden and sharp decline. In 2008 there were thirty-four official events, offering almost $60 million in prize money. Those numbers declined to twenty-eight and less than $48 million last year. With two fewer tournaments this season, prize money is set to decline by another $4 million.

Part of the problem is the overall economy. Professional golf relies heavily on corporate sponsorship, and we are obviously in a period when very few businesses are in a position to write fat checks in order to attach their name to sporting events. The LPGA is further hampered by the fact that the Woods-led men’s tour sucks a lot of the oxygen out of the room when it comes to attracting sponsors. Michael Whan, the LPGA’s new commissioner who took office at the beginning of the year, was chosen in large part because of his successful track record in marketing for Wilson Sporting Goods and TaylorMade Golf. An improving economy and Whan’s talent may help to slow the decline of the women’s tour.

But what’s really needed to rekindle fan interest is the rise of a legitimate superstar, someone who could be the face of women’s golf and take the place of Annika Sorenstam, who retired to start a family after the 2008 season. Mexican Lorena Ochoa seemed poised to step into that role, having overtaken Sorenstam in the world rankings in 2007. But after winning eight times in 2007 and adding another 7 victories in 2008, Ochoa slipped to just three wins last year. She has also won just two majors, and began play today having gone winless in her last seven major tournaments. If one sets aside Ochoa’s three 2009 victories, which brought her career total to twenty-seven, and veteran Karrie Webb’s thirty-sixth career win in Phoenix last March, then on average the woman hoisting the trophy on Sunday evening last year was doing so for just the third time in her career. I know plenty of people complain when a single player or team dominates a sport, but having a recognizable star would be a huge boost to a tour struggling to get noticed. In this case parity is just another word for anonymity, and that’s no way to attract fans.

And at the risk of sounding jingoistic, it wouldn’t hurt if that much-needed superstar turned out to be an American. In its early years the LPGA was dominated by Americans; in fact it was 1968 before Canadian Sandra Post became the first foreigner to earn a tour card. But recent history has been just the opposite. An American hasn’t led the money list since 1993, nor won the most tournaments in a season since 1996. In the past decade, Americans won only nine of forty majors. And last year, just five Americans recorded victories. At one point U.S. golfers were shut out for more than six months, from Cristie Kerr’s win at Williamsburg in May until Michelle’s Wie’s maiden victory in Mexico in November.

Golf is of course an international sport, and I’ve rooted and cheered for plenty of international players. Bernhard Langer winning the 1985 Masters, while dressed in a spectacularly ugly fire engine red outfit for the final round, rekindled my interest in playing golf. Annika recording her first LPGA win at the 1995 U.S. Open was the television birth of a superstar. I still remember the camera on the shy young Swede as she sat in the 18th green television booth, her eyes getting as big as saucers as she watched Meg Mallon’s putt to tie her slide by the cup. And I’ve previously written my praise for Ernie Els, before he punctuated his Doral victory by winning again last week. But if the American women’s tour is trying to boost its American fan base, it obviously wouldn’t hurt to have some Americans succeed.

Surely the talent is there, and especially among young players with a long career in front of them. From Paula Creamer (sidelined now after hand surgery) to Vickie Hurst to Morgan Pressel to Brittany Lincicome and on to Wie, there are plenty of young Americans who could be the next LPGA superstar.

Assuming a full recovery from her surgery, “Pink Panther” Creamer, with eight career victories at 23, has already shown a potential superstar game and a decidedly superstar style. Hurst, just 19, has yet to win but clearly has the game to do so and the megawatt smile that could be easily be the face of the tour. Twenty-one year old Pressel, who at the age of 12 became the youngest contestant ever to qualify for the US Women’s Open, has a gripping life story and was the youngest winner of a major when she claimed the Nabisco in 2007. Long hitting 24 year old Lincicome, the oldest of this group, has won three times and is defending her first major victory this week. And then there is Wie, the 20 year old with exceptional talent and until the second half of 2009, exceptionally disappointing results. But apparently finally freed from her father’s obsession that she compete against men, Wie seemed to come of age at the Solheim Cup last August, winning 3 ½ of a possible 4 points in her matches. She followed that up with her first LPGA Tour win in November.

Any of these five could have a breakout year in 2010.  My guess is that Michael Whan, for all of his marketing genius, is hoping like hell that at least one of them does.

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