Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 24, 2013

Back From The Brink, The LPGA Can Thank Michael Whan

The LPGA wrapped up its 2013 season this weekend on Florida’s Gulf Coast. The CME Group Titleholders is the Tour’s season-ending limited field event, open to the top three finishers from each regular season tournament who have not already qualified. That standard produced a field of 68 golfers for this year’s event; and while the all of the top players in the women’s game were there, the unique qualifying criteria also resulted in a surprising entrant or two.

American Sandra Changkija is a second year Tour player who appeared headed back to the LPGA qualifying tournament when she arrived in Naples. A mostly forgettable season left her outside of the top 100 on the money list, the cutoff point for earning a playing card for next year. But in one of her few good starts Changkija scored a 9th place finish at the Safeway Classic in September, and with most of the women ahead of her already in the Titleholders’ field, she became the second qualifier from that tournament.

She appeared ready to make the most of her unlikely chance, and with just five holes to play Changkija was 7-under par, set to earn more than enough to put her safely into the top 100 for the year. That’s when she took a disastrous triple-bogey eight on the par-5 14th hole at Tiburon Golf Club. She steadied herself with three straight pars, but her approach on the difficult par-4 closing hole raced over the green. Needing to get up and down to remain at 4-under in what would eventually turn out to be a tie for 21st place, she calmly rolled her third shot up to within two feet of the cup, and then sank the par-saving putt. The $16,063 payday moved her into 100th place on the money list with $1,775 to spare.

The top of the leaderboard was also not lacking for drama. China’s Shanshan Feng started the final round two strokes adrift of a trio of golfers, but charged quickly into the lead by notching four birdies in the first six holes. Feng then ran off a string of eight consecutive pars, but while she was running in neutral no one was able to make a move to catch her. The first player from China to join the LPGA Tour, Feng won a major title at the 2010 LPGA Championship, and then earlier this year triumphed at the inaugural edition of the Reignwood LPGA Classic, the first Tour event to be played in her home country.

A pair of late birdies moved Feng to 15-under, which in the end was enough for the win and the $700,000 winner’s check, the largest prize in women’s golf. But victory wasn’t certain until the final group had played the final hole. American Gerina Piller, one of the three co-leaders at the start of the day, climbed to 14-under with a birdie at the 17th hole, and then struck a beautiful iron shot from the right hand rough on the 18th, leaving a ten foot downhill putt to force a playoff. Piller’s putt stayed outside the hole, but the second place finish vaulted her up the money list.

The final leaderboard at the Titleholders was a perfect reflection of the global nature of the LPGA. Behind Feng from China and Piller from the U.S., the top five finishers included Thailand’s Pornanong Phatlum, Germany’s Sandra Gal, and Korea’s Inbee Park. That entirely appropriate leaderboard marked a strong finish to a strong year for the Tour. The five women’s majors were won by the top three women in the Rolex Rankings, with world #1 Park winning the first three, a feat last accomplished by Babe Zaharias in 1950. Third-ranked Stacy Lewis won the Women’s British Open with a thrilling charge over the final holes at the Old Course at St. Andrews, and world #2 Suzann Pettersen of Norway won the Evian Championship in its first year as a major. In doing so Pettersen held off 16-year old amateur Lydia Ko of New Zealand, who turned pro just before the Titleholders and who already has a pair of LPGA victories.

Along with Ko, American Lexi Thompson reminded golf fans of just how poised some very young players can be. Thompson, who turned pro in 2010 at age 15, won twice this season while finishing second in the Tour’s driving distance statistic, with an average of more than 271 yards off the tee. The top LPGA award, Player of the Year, went fittingly to Park after her major trifecta. But it was American Lewis who took home the Vare Trophy, given annually to the woman with the lowest scoring average. Lewis, who won Player of the Year last season while Park was winning the Vare, became the first American to lead the Tour in scoring since Beth Daniel in 1994.

Yet as good as 2013 was for the LPGA, the announcement this week of the Tour’s 2014 schedule was the best news of all. When then 44-year old marketing executive Michael Whan was named LPGA Commissioner late in 2009, the organization was in disarray. Carolyn Bivens had been forced out of a short tenure as Commissioner early in the year as the Tour’s schedule shrank and recession-wracked sponsors abandoned the women’s game. The end for Bivens came after she appeared insensitive at best and jingoistic at worst in attempting to force through a rule requiring all players to be fluent in English. Whan had a successful track record at TaylorMade Golf and Wilson Sporting Goods, but he had never run an organization as large as the LPGA, nor had he presided over any kind of league or association. But he pledged to restore relationships with sponsors and rebuild the schedule. At his introductory press conference he was asked how many tournaments were needed to comprise a great schedule for the Tour. Whan said that 30 to 32 events was his goal.

While Whan went to work the Tour hit rock bottom. In 2011 the entire season consisted of just 23 events, the lowest number in four decades. Just 13 tournaments were played in the U.S., and prize money continued to shrink. Just two years after that debacle, Whan’s announcement this week of the 2014 schedule shows that he has met his goal. With the addition of four new events, the women of the LPGA will tee it up at 32 official stops next year. They will play in the San Francisco Bay area for the first time in years, at historic Lake Merced Golf Club in April, and stop in Michigan for the first time in more than a decade in August. In total there will be 21 North American tournaments, three more than this year. Total prize money will rise to a record $56.3 million, a gaudy fifteen percent increase over this season. There will be a new unofficial team event, the International Crown. Four-player teams from eight different countries, the selection based on the Rolex Rankings, will compete in match play. The event, to be played in the Baltimore suburbs, opens the door to the many Asian players excluded from the biennial U.S. versus Europe Solheim Cup.

In just a few weeks the cover of Sports Illustrated will feature the magazine’s selection for Sportsman (or woman) of the Year. Perhaps LeBron James will go back-to-back, just as he did at the NBA Finals. Perhaps SI will find a way to recognize the remarkable worst to first year of the Red Sox. Perhaps the editors will have a sense of humor and give a joint award to Bud Selig and Alex Rodriguez, two people who truly deserve to forever be linked. But if they really want to recognize someone in sport whose “performance most embodies the spirit of achievement,” they ought to consider recognizing Michael Whan.

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