Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 19, 2011

The LPGA Is Still Waiting For American Success

This weekend members of the LPGA, or at least some of them, do something fairly important for professional athletes in any sport. They play. While that would scarcely be worth mentioning about almost any other pro league, it is depressingly big news for the premiere women’s golf tour. The limited-field Sybase Match Play Championship, which began today at Hamilton Farm Golf Club in Gladstone, New Jersey, is just the second tour stop since the Kraft Nabisco Championship, the LPGA’s first major, wrapped up seven weeks ago.

In its second year the Match Play Championship is an obvious attempt to feed off the popularity and novelty of the men’s match play event that is part of the globe-spanning World Golf Championships. But the head-to-head format necessitates the field being limited to 64 players. Since the Match Play is followed next week by an even more exclusive 30-player event in Brazil, the Avnet LPGA Classic held three weeks ago was the sole opportunity between the Kraft Nabisco and the ShopRite LPGA Classic two months later for most tour members to earn a paycheck.

Over that same span the PGA Tour has and will play every week, with The Masters the only limited-field event. The men’s European Tour has a similarly full calendar, and even the Ladies European Tour offers its members more chances to play through the spring than does the LPGA. While the tour’s schedule gets busier come June, there is not a single month during the entire season without at least one open weekend.

No U.S. professional sport was as negatively impacted by the economic sinkhole as was women’s golf. The LPGA peaked in 2008 when its calendar was filled with 34 events, 24 of which were played in the United States. Total purses for the year exceeded $60 million. But the LPGA is always going to play second fiddle to the men’s game, and both tours have had to compete with NASCAR, IndyCar, and all of the team sports for a dramatically shrinking pool of corporate sponsorship dollars. Just two years after its peak, by 2010 the LPGA season consisted of just 24 tournaments offering purses of a little over $41 million, a decline of more than thirty percent in prize money. Worse still for U.S. golf fans and for the development of American women golfers, the losses were entirely at home. Just as in 2008, the 2010 schedule included 10 events played on foreign soil.

LPGA commissioner Michael Whan knew what he was getting himself into when he took over leadership of the troubled tour at the beginning of 2010. With a background in marketing and a successful career at Proctor & Gamble, Wilson Sporting Goods, and TaylorMade Golf, Whan seemed like a wise choice for the tour. He has been tireless in his efforts to promote the women’s game to potential sponsors, and has scored some success with the naming of some new marketing partners. While the 2011 season schedule remains notable mostly for its holes, and while the number of tournaments in the U.S. will decrease yet again to just 13, the total number of events remains the same as last year and total purses are actually slightly higher than in 2010. Given the steep decline that he inherited, Whan deserves some time to turn things around.

Aside from stanching the bleeding of the tour’s schedule, Whan is also aggressively marketing the tour. So far this year, television viewership of LPGA events on The Golf Channel is up 32% compared to 2010, and traffic to LPGA.com is also on the rise. Of course, the fact that even the tour’s first major was relegated to The Golf Channel is dramatic proof of just how far the LPGA has fallen.

But the biggest challenge facing Whan is one that he can do little about, and that’s the dearth of American women in the top ranks of the tour. In this week’s official Rolex Women’s World Golf Rankings there are just three Americans in the top twelve; Christie Kerr at #4, Michelle Wie at #10 and Paula Creamer at #12.

Remarkably five of the top twelve women golfers are from South Korea, a country with one-sixth the population of the U.S. The impact of women from one small country on women’s golf isn’t limited to the very top of the game either. A total of 21 American women were among the 64 golfers who teed it up in today’s first round of the Sybase Match Play. That was one fewer than the number of South Korean women playing. There are any number of factors contributing to the extraordinary success of these young women, from cultural views on parenting and the appropriateness of “pushing” children to excel, to the ready availability of individual corporate sponsors to help offset the enormous costs of playing an international game.

But it does nothing to diminish their hard work and their accomplishments, or that of any number of successful LPGA players from other countries, to suggest that the success of the LPGA in the U.S. would be helped by greater success of American players. Paula Creamer’s victory at Oakmont in last year’s U.S Women’s Open raised hopes; but international players won eleven of the twelve events on the LPGA schedule through the rest of 2010.

Every season the LPGA hands out three big awards: Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year, and the Vare Trophy for lowest scoring average. Creamer’s 2005 win as Rookie of the Year was the last time an American won any of the three; and the last time the Player of the Year award went to an American was 1994, when Beth Daniel won.

Meanwhile as today’s LPGA stars play their matches in New Jersey this weekend, on New Hampshire’s seacoast the golfing greats of another era have gathered. The Handa Cup, one of a handful of tournaments on the Legends Tour is being played at Wentworth By-the-Sea Country Club. The Legends Tour is being developed by former LPGA star Jane Blalock as a vehicle for senior women to display their still considerable skills. With just six events, the Legends is nothing like the Champions Tour on the PGA. But this weekend the likes of the aforementioned Beth Daniel, as well as Pat Bradley, Patty Sheehan and Nancy Lopez will show a few hundred New Hampshire fans that they’ve still got game. Michael Whan’s problem is that to a lot of golf fans, those vintage names are more familiar than are the names of the current crop of American women.

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