LPGA Hits Stride With Five-Year Business Plan
As its 2004 season begins, the worlds top womens golf league is midway through a self-imposed reexamination of its business practices, building the momentum to break through those barriers ' and more important, thinking beyond them.
The numbers, preceded by a lot of plus signs, depict the trend. Network television viewership rose 26 percent between 2001 and 2003, and 42 percent among the crucial ages 25-54 demographic. Gains on cable were just slightly lower. The LPGAs website traffic was up more than 40 percent in 2003 versus 2002. Attendance at tournaments rose 9 percent in 2003 compared to the season before. LPGA members play for more than $43 million in 32 events ' still far short of the $240 million the PGA Tour spreads over 48 tournaments, but a figure that is growing by the year.
When youve got an environment where your fan base is growing, it all reflects the interest level and the compelling nature that our fans find in our product, said Ty Votaw, who is starting his sixth year as commissioner. Thats what Im most proud of entering the third year of our five-year business plan.
Part of that plan is to attract ' and take care of ' some big-name sponsors.
The depth and breadth of the tour and the story lines over the last couple of years have shown a growth in interest, Votaw said, and that means more eyeballs, which of course sponsors want. So far, so good: The sponsor list includes data management company Sybase, food giants Kraft and Kellogg-Keebler, and Anheuser-Busch.
Youve got to realize that not every worthwhile sport involves a 20 rating and a hundred thousand people in the stands, said Tony Ponturo, vice president of global media and sports marketing for Anheuser-Busch. With the Michelob Ultra brand, which has a more female attraction, its important to be involved in a womens sport. We find the women of the LPGA to be user-friendly and cooperative from a marketing standpoint. It gives us a nice compliment to a female consumer base.
That kind of reaction is music to Votaws ears. His challenge, he says, is to get the players to sing the same song as often as possible.
We have to do everything we can to make sure our players are unanimous in their approach to the marketplace. Now that we have set the bar where it is by being a fans-first organization, when someone falls down, whether its a pro-am situation or a shuttle experience or whatever, we have to be sure that how the fan encounters the players at each touch point is important.
Not that they fall down very often. Ponturo reports that pro-am participants who initially grouse at playing with a woman pro finish the day thoroughly charmed and pleased with the experience.
Most of the players, veteran and newcomer, are on board.
I always compare [the LPGA] to a slow, steady stock, as opposed to the PGA Tour, which is more like as hedge fund, said Meg Mallon, who is entering her 17th season as a fully qualified member. We just get better every year, which is very encouraging. To Mallon, her league doesnt feel like a one-star (read: Annika) tour.
More power to her, Mallon said. We ride that wave with her.
And how about the youngsters? Are they watching the numbers?
Big time, because it continues to show how the success of the tour is going, said Natalie Gulbis, who is starting her third year. Its exciting to see the prize money go up every year as well.
Constructive criticism is part of the process ' Gulbis wants more events earlier on the schedule, and Mallon would like to see a better retirement plan (Some top players who retired werent able to live on it, she said) ' but the general attitude as the 2004 season begins is can-do, with plenty of enthusiasm and not a hint of self-pity. Some players arent happy with equipment manufacturers who have pulled in endorsement dollars in tough times, cutting back many womens contracts or eliminating them altogether. But most players think they can earn back that attention ' and the dollars ' as the economy improves.
Votaw is turning his attention to the World Congress of Womens Golf, which the LPGA is organizing in New York City the third week of May. Womens golf tours and organizations will gather in the same place for the first time ever, and the plan is to discuss ways to foster womens golf worldwide.
The linchpin of any plan is likely to focus on the LPGAs No. 1 asset.
Increases in attendance, viewership and dot.com are opening doors, but the LPGA must still show value, Votaw says. The point of difference is the players. Our players have long been regarded as wonderful pro-am participants, wonderful for corporate outings, and great with the fans.
On the other side of the glass ' and grass ' ceiling, the only limit Votaw sees is the sky.
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Hadwin returns to site of last year's 59
Adam Hadwin had a career season last year, one that included shooting a 59 and winning a PGA Tour event. But those two achievements didn't occur in the same week.
While Hadwin's breakthrough victory came at the Valspar Championship in March, it was at the CareerBuilder Challenge in January when he first made headlines with a third-round 59 at La Quinta Country Club. Hadwin took a lead into the final round as a result, but he ultimately couldn't keep pace with Hudson Swafford.
He went on to earn a spot at the Tour Championship, and Hadwin made his first career Presidents Cup appearance in October. Now the Canadian returns to Palm Springs, eager to improve on last year's result and hoping to earn a spot in the final group for a third straight year after a T-6 finish in 2016.
"A lot of good memories here in the desert," Hadwin told reporters. "I feel very comfortable here, very at home. Lots of Canadians, so it's always fun to play well in front of those crowds and hopefully looking forward to another good week."
Hadwin's 59 last year was somewhat overshadowed, both by the fact that he didn't win the event and that it came just one week after Justin Thomas shot a 59 en route to victory at the Sony Open. But he's still among an exclusive club of just eight players to have broken 60 in competition on Tour and he's eager to get another crack at La Quinta on Saturday.
"If I'm in the same position on 18, I'm gunning for 58 this year," Hadwin said, "not playing safe for 59."
Rahm: If I thought like Phil, I could not hit a shot
When it comes to Jon Rahm and Phil Mickelson, there are plenty of common bonds. Both starred at Arizona State, both are now repped by the same agency and Rahm's former college coach and agent, Tim Mickelson, now serves full-time as his brother's caddie.
Those commonalities mean the two men have played plenty of practice rounds together, but the roads quickly diverge when it comes to on-course behavior. Rahm is quick, fiery and decisive; Mickelson is one of the most analytical players on Tour. And as Rahm told reporters Wednesday at the CareerBuilder Challenge, those differences won't end anytime soon.
"I don't need much. 'OK, it's like 120 (yards), this shot, right," Rahm said. "And then you have Phil, it's like, 'Oh, this shot, the moisture, this going on, this is like one mile an hour wind sideways, it's going to affect it one yard. This green is soft, this trajectory. They're thinking, and I'm like, 'I'm lost.' I'm like, 'God if I do that thought process, I could not hit a golf shot.'"
The tactics may be more simplified, but Rahm can't argue with the results. While Mickelson is in the midst of a winless drought that is approaching five years, Rahm won three times around the world last year and will defend a PGA Tour title for the first time next week at Torrey Pines.
Both men are in the field this week in Palm Springs, where Mickelson will make his 2018 debut with what Rahm fully expects to be another dose of high-level analytics for the five-time major winner with his brother on the bag.
"It's funny, he gets to the green and then it's the same thing. He's very detail-oriented," Rahm said of Mickelson. "I'm there listening and I'm like, 'Man, I hope we're never paired together for anything because I can't think like this. I would not be able to play golf like that. But for me to listen to all that is really fun."
DJ changes tune on golf ball distance debate
World No. 1 Dustin Johnson is already one of the longest hitters in golf, so he's not looking for any changes to be made to golf ball technology - despite comments from him that hinted at just such a notion two months ago.
Johnson is in the Middle East this week for the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and he told BBC Sport Wednesday that he wouldn't be in favor of making changes to the golf ball in order to remedy some of the eye-popping distances players are hitting the ball with ever-increasing frequency.
"It's not like we are dominating golf courses," Johnson said. "When was the last time you saw someone make the game too easy? I don't really understand what all the debate is about because it doesn't matter how far it goes; it is about getting it in the hole."
Johnson's rhetorical question might be answered simply by looking back at his performance at the Sentry Tournament of Champions earlier this month, an eight-shot romp that featured a tee shot on the 433-yard 12th hole that bounded down a slope to within inches of the hole.
Johnson appeared much more willing to consider a reduced-distance ball option at the Hero World Challenge in November, when he sat next to tournament host Tiger Woods and supported Woods' notion that the ball should be addressed.
"I don't mind seeing every other professional sport, they play with one ball. All the pros play with the same ball," Johnson said. "In baseball, the guys that are bigger and stronger, they can hit a baseball a lot further than the smaller guys. ... I think there should be some kind of an advantage for guys who work on hitting it far and getting that speed that's needed, so having a ball, like the same ball that everyone plays, there's going to be, you're going to have more of an advantage."
Speaking Wednesday in Abu Dhabi, Johnson stood by the notion that regardless of whether the rules change or stay the same, he plans to have a leg up on the competition.
"If the ball is limited then it is going to limit everyone," he said. "I'm still going to hit it that much further than I guess the average Tour player."
LPGA lists April date for new LA event
The LPGA’s return to Los Angeles will come with the new Hugel-JTBC Open being played at Wilshire Country Club April 19-22, the tour announced Wednesday.
When the LPGA originally released its schedule, it listed the Los Angeles event with the site to be announced at a later date.
The Hugel-JTBC Open will feature a 144-player field and a $1.5 million purse. It expands the tour’s West Coast swing, which will now be made up of four events in California in March and April.
The LPGA last played in Los Angeles in 2005. Wilshire Country Club hosted The Office Depot in 2001, with Annika Sorenstam winning there.