Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 9, 2014

Great Job By Whan, But Will Anyone Watch?

How far the LPGA has come under the leadership of Commissioner Michael Whan was made apparent this week. Which is a good thing, because only recently golf fans were reminded of just how far the women’s circuit still has to go to once again become a significant part of the larger sports scene.

On Wednesday Whan announced that with the backing of sponsor CME Group the LPGA was initiating a season-long points competition with a $1 million prize going to the winning player. In addition the Chicago-based securities firm will continue its sponsorship of the Tour’s season-ending tournament, the CME Group Titleholders, with its $2 million purse and $500,000 first prize.

The inaugural Race to the CME Globe, named for the crystal trophy that is the symbol of the new competition, kicks off later this month when the LPGA begins its 2014 schedule at Paradise Island with the Pure Silk Bahamas LPGA Classic. There and at each of the regular Tour stops to follow on this year’s expanded schedule, every golfer who makes the cut will earn points, starting with 500 for the winner and descending down the final leader board. The five women’s majors will have a 25% bonus, with 625 points going to the winning player. Point totals will be reset prior to the Titleholders, giving an advantage to the year’s top performers while also ensuring that the sparkling trophy and the accompanying check which will be the largest payday in women’s golf can’t be won prior to the Tour’s final tournament.

The year-long points contest is similar to the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup competition, which since it was initiated in 2007 has helped to increase interest in the men’s game, especially after the PGA Championship, each season’s final men’s major, is played in early August. Now fans have a reason to keep watching, as the FedEx Cup race culminates with a four tournament playoff in late August and September, with smaller fields at each successive event. Whan hopes to gain a similar boost in interest in the women’s game while adding a level of stress and tension. For unlike the PGA Tour’s multi-event playoff format, the LPGA golfers will compete for their biggest payday over just four days and 72 holes at Tiburon Golf Club in Naples, Florida. The obvious possibility of a dramatic and climactic Sunday finish awaits.

A different finishing format is not the only way in which the LPGA’s new competition deviates from the men’s FedEx Cup race. While the $1 million bonus that the women will be playing for next November will be a record for the LPGA, it’s but a shadow of the $10 million bonus that Sweden’s Henrik Stenson pocketed for winning the FedEx Cup last September. That yawning gap is a reminder that as successful as Whan has been during his four years running the women’s tour, increasing the number of tournaments and putting more events on U.S. soil, upping total prize money significantly, and bringing corporate sponsors back into the fold, women professionals still aren’t on the same fairways as the men.

Whan and his touring pros had another, decidedly unpleasant, reminder of just how marginalized their tour had become until he began its recent turnaround when the Associated Press announced its annual Athlete of the Year Awards late last month. The AP’s awards have been given annually to one male and one female athlete for more than eight decades. The fact that from their very beginning the news agency chose to bestow two awards has always been viewed as a singular recognition of women’s sports; for in 1931 female athletes had little if any presence on the sports pages of most newspapers. Each year a panel of sports editors from AP member media outlets across the country submit their votes. This December tennis star Serena Williams won the women’s award, garnering 55 of the 96 total votes.

Williams had a remarkable season on the courts, and it’s hard to quarrel with her selection. She won 11 of the 16 singles tournaments she entered during the year, and at one point was victorious in 34 consecutive matches. She triumphed in a pair of Grand Slam events, the French Open in June and the U.S. Open in September. Her $12 million in prize money set a record for women’s tennis, and at age 32 she regained the number one ranking she had last held in 2009.

But what was striking about the AP vote results was who followed Williams in the results. The AP announced only the top three vote-getters. Second was Brittney Griner, the number one pick in the 2013 WNBA draft. Griner was a collegiate star for four years at Baylor, leading the Lady Bears to the NCAA Division I championship – in 2012. This year Baylor lost to Louisville in the Sweet Sixteen. After she was selected by the Phoenix Mercury in the WNBA draft, Griner quickly established herself as a rising star by becoming the first woman to dunk twice in a game. But Phoenix lost to Minnesota in the Conference Finals. Third in the voting was swimmer Missy Franklin, who had a very fine 2013, winning six gold medals at the World Aquatics Championships in Barcelona. But Franklin’s greatest accomplishment was at the Olympics, where she won four gold medals plus a bronze – in 2012.

Griner received 14 votes and Franklin netted 10. Somewhere behind them was the LPGA’s Inbee Park. All Park did in 2013 was win six tournaments, more than anyone else, including the first three majors. Her victory at the U.S. Open last June put her in the company of Babe Zaharias as the only women to win the first three majors of a season. She led the money list with nearly $2.5 million in winnings, and was the runaway winner for Player of the Year. But when it came time for sports editors all across the country to send in their votes to the Associated Press, Inbee Park was an afterthought behind at least two very fine women athletes whose greatest achievements didn’t even happen in 2013.

Not so very long ago, even casual fans took notice of women’s golf. Lorena Ochoa won her second consecutive AP Woman Athlete of the Year Award in 2007, following up on Annika Sorenstam’s three straight titles. Hopefully sometime soon, those casual fans, and maybe even a sports editor or two, will take notice of Michael Whan’s good work, and women golfers’ great play.

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