So there was this important women’s golf tournament this past weekend. Got big crowds and terrific local media coverage, and since it’s a major championship, you surely must have heard all about it, right?
Unfortunately, probably not. Unless you’re a committed fan of women’s golf, it was easy to miss it entirely. The LPGA Championship – which dates back to 1955 – was contested in Pittsford, N.Y., in the greater Rochester area. American Cristie Kerr torched the field for the second major championship of her career.
There has been a regular LPGA tour stop at Locust Hill Country Club in Pittsford since 1977, and it’s been sponsored by the Wegmans grocery chain since 1982. It’s been one of the “old-fashioned” LPGA events, the kind the tour was built upon: In a smaller community, for which it’s one of the highlights of the year, where there is a long-standing connection to the tour and to the players themselves.
But this year, the LPGA Championship was played there instead of just a standard tournament. With McDonald’s pulling out of its long-standing sponsorship of the LPGA Championship and the tour unable to secure another large-scale sponsor for 2010, Wegmans and Locust Hill filled in as replacements.
And now the LPGA faces a dilemma: Keep the event there, where it was locally and regionally very popular (but pretty much nationally invisible) or keep working to get another sponsor and a different course. Among the “downsides” to leaving it there is that then, the tour effectively “loses” what was one of its most successful regular tournaments by turning it into a major.
The hope of many of the players is that the tour can still “sell” the LPGA Championship elsewhere, while maintaining the Rochester event as it previously was. The LPGA has been hurt, like every other industry, by the downturn in the economy. So the tour really doesn’t want to see its schedule get any smaller for 2011.
What the LPGA is going through right now isn’t “new,” just a different version of issues that virtually all businesses face. The LPGA has seen events and sponsors come and go over the years. That’s the nature of professional golf. But it was particularly tough to lose McDonald’s, which had been the primary sponsor for the LPGA Championship since 1987.
From 1978-89, the tournament was played in King’s Island, Ohio. Then it was in Maryland/Delaware through last year’s event. Now, the LPGA Championship is at another fork in the road.
With their presence this past weekend, the fans in greater Rochester made their case for why the major should stay there.
Surely, there are people in that area who’ve been going for three decades to watch LPGA players compete. They saw the magical rookie season of Nancy Lopez in 1978, when she won nine tournaments overall and five in a row, which remains an LPGA tour record (tied by Annika Sorenstam in 2005). The last of Lopez’s five straight wins was at Locust Hill, in fact.
Lopez was 21 then _ bubbly, smiling, vivacious and victorious. There’s really been no one quite like her on the LPGA Tour, able to play at such a high level while being so engaging with the crowds that always loved her and rooted for her.
In women’s golf, especially, there are no rogue fans. Nobody’s actively rooting against anybody; they’re pulling for birdies from everyone on each hole. (Except, of course, during the Solheim Cup.) So Lopez always said the energy she gave to the fans came back to her 10 times over.
Lopez was a very emotional person who didn’t really “change” her personality as a competitor; her warmth radiated to those who watched her. Bizarrely, she never won the one tournament she wanted most: the U.S. Women’s Open, finishing as runner-up four times. The first of those agonizing second places was when she was just 18, the last when she was 40.
Fans/volunteers of a certain age who’ve been coming to Locust Hill for years probably know all of this Lopez history at least to some extent, because their knowledge of women’s golf is higher than would be the case in many areas. Last Thursday and Friday, they could even have seen Lopez – who’s been effectively retired for several years now – take a stroll down Memory Lane. She missed the cut with rounds of 87-86, but was still connecting with the fans.
Those same fans in Rochester, especially if they’ve been attending since ’77, have watched the evolution of the LPGA tour: from American-dominated to truly global. This definitely has had its plusses, but some undeniable challenges, too.
Americans like watching Americans win; safe to say, for instance, that the TV ratings for Uruguay-Ghana in the World Cup will not be what they would have been for USA-Uruguay.
The last American woman to be the season-ending money-leader on the LPGA tour is Betsy King … and that was in 1993. So it’s not just a brief aberration in women’s golf that no American woman is the “star” of the tour. It’s been that way for nearly two decades.
However, the three best players during much of that time _ Sweden’s Annika Sorenstam, Australia’s Karrie Webb and Mexico’s Lorena Ochoa _ all spoke English, and that was a key point in them connecting to an American audience. In the case of Webb, obviously, it was her native language. Sorenstam – who like most Swedes learned English from childhood – was seamlessly fluent. And Ochoa – who had by far the closest thing to a Lopez-like personality of the three – was fluent enough.
Now, Sorenstam is retired, and Ochoa surprisingly did the same earlier this year (there are plenty of folks hoping after some time away, she’ll come back. And, hey, considering Juli Inster is still going at 50, maybe a few might even have daydreams of a Sorenstam return).
Webb – once considered neck-and-neck with Sorenstam as in the running for best player in LPGA history – hit her peak a decade ago, when she won five majors in less than 24 months’ time between 1999-2001.
Webb had a resurgence with five wins in 2006, but she’s won just one title since. Is she one of the greatest women’s golfers ever? Without question, and on the short list at that. And she’s still capable of winning. She finished tied for fifth at the LPGA Championship, and would have been right in the hunt had Kerr not been “UConn” to the rest of the field. But Webb did not have the personality to want to carry the tour, even when she had the results to do that.
Sorenstam didn’t have it at first, either. But she worked very hard on that, and should always get credit for how much she came out of her shell for the good of the LPGA. She brought women’s golf as much visibility as anyone ever had when she competed on the PGA tour in the Colonial in 2003, and she ended up transcending the boundaries of name recognition that usually are very hard to break for female athletes.
Ochoa had not reached that level in the United States and perhaps wasn’t ever going to. (Unless she does come back, we’ll never know.) But she was and is a national heroine in Mexico.
However, the issue of players succeeding on the tour who don’t speak English either conversationally or, realistically, not at all, has been one of the most difficult things for the LPGA, its players and the fans/media who follow it to try to navigate.
Short version: The success of Asian-born players has opened up the market, both for LPGA tournaments and accompanying television coverage, in countries such as South Korea and Japan in a way it never was open even 10 years ago. But … the lack of “connections” that have been formed between most of the Asian players and American audiences for the U.S.-based tour events has been a real dilemma.
The need for players to communicate in pro-ams (a key money-maker for tournaments) and to develop enough of a presence that TV audiences feel compelled to tune in to see them are very real necessities for the tour.
Former commissioner Carolyn Bivens, whose four-year tenure was probably more a mixed bag than she’s given credit for, was forced to resign last July. It was needed, because she was unpopular and the players had mostly lost confidence in her.
It’s easy, but not fully accurate, to call her reign a disaster. Was she heavy-handed and draconian at times? Yes, and it didn’t work. Especially not in regard to a disastrous “mandate” for all players to learn English. But the essence of what she was saying about the need for players to work harder at English to connect to American audience for the good of the tour was true. And she did secure some positive things for the tour, including a 10-year deal with The Golf Channel.
But even that is not universally appreciated, by any means. The Golf Channel doesn’t garner the same respect, obviously, that the major networks do. In fact, I heard from three different friends last week who spoke with disdain of the LPGA Championship being “only” on The Golf Channel. My answer to that is, “Hey, I understand, but it’s a lot better than no TV at all.”
The LPGA as a product has a ton of positives, but it also has some issues I’m not sure anybody really knows how best to address. I think for right now, the tour is going to be more successful – at least in the current environment and economy – by focusing on each tournament’s local/regional appeal as opposed to the greater umbrella of the tour itself being something that’s nationally popular.
I realize that sounds like a step “backward,” more in line with the mom-and-pop feel of how the LPGA started in 1950 than where the sport’s fans hoped it would be in 2010. But, especially with a national sports media that has shamelessly regressed in the last few years in regard to employing journalists who have interest in and historical knowledge of women’s sports, the LPGA has very intentionally been shoved into the shadows by national outlets. But not by the local media, who tend to cover their events pretty well.
So the tour, I think, has to take stock of what’s been reliably good and put weight on it. And that’s certainly been stops such as Locust Hill. Whether moving the LPGA Championship to the Rochester area for an extended time is the truly the best move, I honestly don’t know.
But I do know the tour could do a lot worse than trusting in people who’ve been there for the LPGA for more than 30 years.