Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 18, 2016

The LPGA’s Problem That Michael Whan Can’t Fix

Sports history was made on Sunday, though the casual fan might never know. The Evian Championship, the fifth and final major of the LPGA season, came to a conclusion at the Evian Resort Golf Club in the French Alps. In Gee Chun opened the tournament with an 8-under par 63 to share the lead with fellow Korean Sung Hyun Park. Chun followed that up with a 66 on Friday to move two shots clear of Park and China’s Shanshan Feng, and then all but locked up the tournament with a third round 65 that put her four strokes ahead after fifty-four holes.

At 19-under par after three rounds, Chun had already matched the record for lowest score in relation to par at a women’s major. Dottie Pepper at what in 1999 was known as the Nabisco Dinah Shore (now the ANA Inspiration), Karen Stupples at the 2004 Women’s British Open, and Christie Kerr and Yani Tseng at the 2010 and 2011 LPGA Championship (now the Women’s PGA Championship) respectively, all won with a final score of 19-under. After three scintillating sub-par rounds Chun seemed poised to shatter that mark. She also appeared likely to break the 20-under par record for men, set first by Jason Day at last year’s PGA Championship, and matched earlier this summer by Henrik Stenson at the Open Championship.

But while the players had been forced to contend with rain and wind at the start of the tournament, the weather turned especially raw and wet for Sunday’s final round. Although organizers sent golfers off both the 1st and 10th tees in hopes of beating the worst of the rain, much of the round was played in heavy downpours, making scoring more difficult. Still Chun displayed the same steady play she showed all week, and recorded her first birdie of the day at the par-4 3rd hole when her approach took the left to right slope of the green and finished six feet from the cup. She added another birdie at the par-3 8th to move into the uncharted territory of 21-under par at a major.

Chun wobbled briefly with a bogey four at the short 14th hole, but immediately bounced back with a birdie at the reachable par-5 15th. She came to the finishing hole still at 21-under, four shots clear of her closest pursuers. With the tournament result no longer in doubt Chun was chasing only a spot in the record books. That seemed in danger when she missed the fairway wide left. The 18th at Evian is the longest par-4 on the course, with a large water hazard fronting the green. Chun wisely took the advice of caddie David Jones, laying up short of the water with a wedge from the heavy rough. From ninety-five yards her third shot with that same wedge came to rest ten feet below the hole.

In her post-round interview Chun admitted to being beset by nerves as she made the walk to the green, and credited her caddie for calming her down as they made their way to the putting surface. But while her heart may have been racing her hands were steady. The putt for par and the record was never in doubt, falling into the center of the cup as Chun raised both arms in triumph.

Yet by Sunday evening, hours after that putt had fallen, there was no mention of Chun’s historic finish on the main sports pages of either the New York Times or Washington Post’s websites, to pick two major news outlets at random. Nor could news of the Evian result be found at CBSSports.com. There the lead golf stories were of a player from the PGA Tour’s developmental Web.com Tour hitting a 45-yard field goal at the Boise State football stadium using an iron, and a video of a 4-year old with an “incredible golf swing.”

LPGA Commissioner Michael Whan has done a great job at rebuilding the women’s tour from the depths in which it wallowed when he took over in 2010. Purses and the number of tournaments have both increased and he’s forged a close working relationship with the vastly more visible men’s tour. Women players understand their need to constantly seek a larger audience, which is surely one of the reasons why unlike many of the top male players, virtually none of the leading women opted out of the Rio Olympics, despite the obvious fact that they stood a far greater risk from the Zika virus.

The LPGA will always play in the shadow of the PGA Tour, because men’s sports simply have larger fan bases. The WNBA is two successful decades old, but attendance at any game is a fraction of that for an NBA contest between cellar-dwelling teams. The U.S. women’s national soccer team has achieved far more than the men’s squad in both the World Cup and the Olympics, but Major League Soccer is vastly more popular than the struggling National Women’s Soccer League.

But a problem unique to the LPGA, which makes the struggle for recognition even greater, is the lack of dominant American talent. It’s not that American golf fans won’t root for foreign players. Gary Player was wildly popular half a century ago, and the likes of Jason Day, Rory McIlroy and Henrik Stenson attract massive followings at every PGA Tour event they play. But U.S. fans root for those players because they can also cheer for Jordan Spieth and Dustin Johnson and Bubba Watson, among many other Americans.

Of the twenty-six LPGA events completed this season, just two individual tournaments were won by Americans. Lexi Thompson won in February and Brittany Lang captured the Women’s U.S. Open in July. The four women U.S. squad also took the International Crown team event. Thompson and Stacy Lewis are currently the only two Americans in the top ten of the Rolex Rankings. But Lewis hasn’t won in more than two years, and having recently married has conceded that her focus is no longer exclusively on golf.

Thompson is only 21, and with power off the tee that rivals many male players. Jessica Korda and Allison Lee are not exactly household names, but both are in their twenties and ranked among the top forty in the world. Perhaps in time a new American generation will rise, and LPGA events will seem more relevant to golf fans in this country. But for all of his marketing skills that’s not something that Michael Whan can control. The good news for In Gee Chun is that even if no one knows about it, the record still counts.

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Responses

  1. Nice.


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