Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 22, 2011

AP’s Snub Of Tseng Reveals Depth Of LPGA’s Problems

The last thing LPGA Commissioner Michael Whan needed was a reminder of just how much work he has to do to bring the women’s golf tour back from the far fringes of interest for most American sports fans. Nevertheless, that’s exactly what he got this week when the Associated Press handed out its annual award for the female Athlete of the Year. Soccer star Abby Wambach was the runaway winner in the voting by sports editors from across the country.

Wambach was certainly responsible for one of 2011’s most dramatic moments in all of sports. Last July, with the clock winding down in injury time in a quarterfinal match against Brazil at the Women’s World Cup in Germany, the United States team trailed 2-1 and appeared headed for its earliest exit from World Cup competition ever. That was when a determined Wambach leapt clear of the Brazilian defenders and headed a crossing pass from Megan Rapinoe into the net to tie the score. The U.S. went on to win the match on penalty kicks. The stunning win galvanized support for the women’s team among a public that had become somewhat complacent, given both the second tier rank of soccer among sports in the U.S. and the routinely high level of success achieved by the team in both World Cup play and at the Olympics.

Perhaps as a sort of lifetime achievement award Wambach is deserving of the AP’s honor. Her four goals in this year’s tournament in Germany give her thirteen in World Cup play, the most by an American and third on the all-time Cup scoring list. She also ranks third on the U.S. career scoring list, her 125 goals trailing only Mia Hamm (158) and Kristine Lilly (130), both of whom are retired. But an award called “Athlete of the Year” presumably isn’t about accomplishments over a career; and for all of the excitement that accompanied the match against Brazil, it’s worth remembering that in the end, the American women didn’t bring home the World Cup. Instead the final against Japan was a mirror image of the quarterfinal against Brazil. This time it was the U.S. team that led 2-1, only to surrender a late goal and then lose on penalty kicks.

Yet the AP’s official release announcing the award cited Wambach as “the clear choice” for this year’s honor. Certainly it seemed that way among the voters. She received 65 of the 214 votes cast, easily outdistancing teammate Hope Solo, who received 38 votes. Maya Moore, who helped the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team set a new NCAA mark for consecutive wins before becoming the first overall pick in the 2011 WNBA draft, was third with 35 votes. Not even mentioned in the official release was the woman who placed a very distant fourth. Yani Tseng, the star of the tour that Michael Whan runs and the number one ranked woman golfer in the world, was the choice of just 24 members of the voting panel.

What kind of year did the 22-year old Tseng have that resulted in her garnering barely more than 10% of the votes in the AP’s balloting? Only one of the more dominant in the six decade history of the LPGA. She won the season-opening event in Thailand in February for her 6th career LPGA victory at the start of just her 4th season on tour. She won the venerable State Farm Classic in June, and then two weeks later tied the tournament record for lowest score in relation to par when she scored a ten-stroke victory at the LPGA Championship with a four-round total of 19-under. The victory completed the career grand slam for Tseng in the four women’s majors. When she successfully defended her title at the Ricoh Women’s British Open in July she became, at just over twenty-two years and six months of age, the youngest golfer of either gender to have won five major titles. By the time the LPGA season wrapped up, Tseng had won seven tournaments and finished in the top ten fourteen times in twenty-two starts. Her $2.9 million in LPGA earnings more than doubled the winnings of Christie Kerr, who finished second on the money list. She won the Vare Trophy for lowest scoring average and led the Tour in a host of other statistical categories, including total birdies, rounds under par, rounds in the 60’s, top-ten finishes, and driving distance.

If all that weren’t enough, Tseng also won three Ladies European Tour events and twice at tournaments sanctioned by the Taiwan LPGA. Her lead in the Rolex Women’s World Golf Rankings is akin to what Tiger Woods in his prime could boast of in the men’s rankings. Yet somehow Yani Tseng didn’t even make honorable mention in a vote for 2011’s top female athlete.

It’s not as if the AP voters don’t consider golfers to be athletes. In the 81 years of the award women golfers have won 24 times, second only the 28 tennis players who have won among all women’s sports. Between 2003 and 2007 LPGA stars won the award five years in a row, with Annika Sorenstam named top female athlete in 2003, 2004, and 2005; followed by Lorena Ochoa in 2006 and 2007. Sorenstam in 2004 and 2005 and Ochoa in 2007 had seasons comparable to Tseng’s 2011 campaign. The first year each won they were clearly not as dominant as Tseng was this year. Further, as the multiple awards to Sweden’s Sorenstam and Mexico’s Ochoa make plain, the AP panel is more than willing to proclaim a non-American the year’s top athlete.

But in the past few years, with a steady loss of corporate sponsors and tournaments due to the recession; and with an increasingly patchwork schedule of events fewer and fewer of which are in the United States, the LPGA has slipped off the radar screen of many fans and, apparently, even many sports writers. Between 2008 and 2010 the number of LPGA tournaments fell by 30%. All four events that dropped off the schedule between 2009 and 2010 were tournaments played in the U.S. As would be expected with a decline in the number of events, total prize money fell as well.

Since becoming Commissioner early in 2010 Whan has worked hard to turn things around; and it’s fair to say that this year he at least stopped the bleeding. The 2011 LPGA schedule had only one less event than in 2010, and prize money was essentially the same. But nearly half the events of what is after all the U.S. women’s professional golf tour were played in other countries. As noted here before, greater competition for Tseng (and before her for Sorenstam and Ochoa) from American women would help spur fan interest. So would more tournaments on American soil.

When Golf Magazine recently named Rory McIlroy as its player of the year, Whan fired off a letter accusing the magazine of sexism for picking the men’s U.S. Open champion over Tseng. Michael Whan deserves time to prove that he can do more than just stanch the wound, and actually begin to rebuild the LPGA. But as this week’s vote by the Associated Press panel makes plain, his problems are about more than just boys versus girls.

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