The State of Womens Golf - Part 1
As the 2001 season draws to a close, the question of where womens golf is today and where it is going must once again be addressed.
Great strides were made in the 1990s under the watchful eyes of former LPGA Tour Commissioners Charlie Mechem (1990-96) and Jim Ritts (1996-1998). It was during this time that the LPGA enjoyed unprecedented growth, record purses and growing media exposure.
Today, under the guidance of Commissioner Ty Votaw, the LPGA faces a new era in which there will be fewer events and jittery sponsors. These are powerful facts when arguing that the LPGA may be in trouble, yet they are undoubtedly symptoms of a weakening economy more than barometers of the LPGA Tours health.
In 2002, even though there could be as many as 10 fewer events on the schedule, the players will still be competing for the same amount of prize money as they did this season. Things are no different than they were when I was at the LPGA, former commissioner Mechem commented. The Tour is strong, growing and inevitably has its ups and downs.'
The LPGA Tour is unlike other sports organizations. It cannot be compared with its male counterpart ' the PGA Tour ' nor can it be compared with the WNBA, yet their success is constantly measured by making comparisons between the LPGA and these other sports organizations. When people would say to me how do you view the state of womens golf and then compare it with the PGA Tour, I would say thats not a fair comparison, Mechem said.
A great example of this came on April 26th of this year when USA Today had a feature article entitled Womens Soccer Roars Past LPGA. Its author, Christine Brennan, implied that a budding soccer league, still in its infancy, had in effect surpassed the LPGA Tour in popularity and recognition. Her remarks incited Tour players, but as the year wraps up, the same statements the articles author wrote are undeniably still true. In some cases, excluding avid followers, LGPA players are virtually unknown.
Marketing and image issues have always been Achilles heals for the LPGA, which now grapples with a precarious situation. Not since Nancy Lopez has an LPGA player captured the attention of the general public the way Karrie Webb and Annika Sorenstam did when they stormed the Tour in the mid-'90s. The LPGA had in its hands the answer to their marketing dreams.
Or so they thought.
Unlike Lopez, with her enigmatic smile that charmed virtually everyone, Annika and Karrie were reserved and thus far have failed to capture the hearts of the public leaving the LPGA with the equivalent of a marketing flat tire.
While the LPGA banks on the playing ability of its members, all the while keeping their fingers crossed for ever-elusive charismatic personalities to arise, the Ladies European Tour (LET) has taken a different tack.
The LET is buying into the idea of marketing their young, attractive and charismatic players as sexy.
There are some that do not see this as a positive trend for the LPGA to follow. My attitude is as follows, Mechem said in a recent interview. I do not believe that selling sex is a wise move in term of the long term growth and marketability of the tour. I do believe that selling the physical attractiveness is a perfectly acceptable thing to do. I always stressed that players should walk up to the first tee looking as attractive as they can.
33-year-old Swedish beauty Catrin Nilsmark competed in the WPGA Championship of Europe at Royal Portcawl this year - in hot pants in a move that even she considers daring in the stuffy environs of American golf.
I know that at the country clubs in Florida where I play, I couldn't get away with them, Nilsmark remarked. But it's all right on the (Euopean) Tour. I like them, other people seem to like them, they are a good cut and I can fit into them. Honestly, there's even enough room for a spare ball and my score card in the back pocket.
We need to be fun to look at ' whether its shorts, bandanas or jewelry or even just a positive attitude.
Spanish player Paula Marti has also used her good looks to promote the European circuit. Marti has done several photo shoots throughout the season and sees nothing wrong with promulgating her talent as well as her beauty.
As a fellow woman golfer, Martis view of exposing her talent and beauty is both very appealing and empowering.
The LPGA Tour has been reluctant to jump on the bandwagon. Still fresh in their minds are the repercussions of Jan Stephenson laying in a vat of golf balls in a photo shoot in the 1970s, and they continue to grapple with an image problem.
Never the less, the image of ladies golf, worldwide, is changing. Recent events make this an undeniable fact. And as much as the staid veterans refuse to accept this as fact, the arrival of a younger, hipper and certainly a more daring class of lady golfers are setting new boundaries in womens golf. And this progressive attitude is breathing new life into a tour (LET) that has notoriously lost its top players to the lucrative purses on the LPGA Tour.
The time has come for the LPGA Tour to put on a show ... on all levels.
Editor's Note: In part two this Friday we will take a look at the state of womens golf from the perspective of current LPGA Commissioner Ty Votaw.
McIlroy gets back on track
There’s only one way to view Rory McIlroy’s performance at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship:
He is well ahead of schedule.
Sure, McIlroy is probably disappointed that he couldn’t chase down Ross Fisher (and then Tommy Fleetwood) on the final day at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. But against a recent backdrop of injuries and apathy, his tie for third was a resounding success. He reasserted himself, quickly, and emerged 100 percent healthy.
“Overall, I’m happy,” he said after finishing at 18-under 270, four back of Fleetwood. “I saw some really, really positive signs. My attitude, patience and comfort level were really good all week.”
To fully appreciate McIlroy’s auspicious 2018 debut, consider his state of disarray just four months ago. He was newly married. Nursing a rib injury. Breaking in new equipment. Testing another caddie. His only constant was change. “Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place,” he said, “and that was because of where I was physically.”
And so he hit the reset button, taking the longest sabbatical of his career, a three-and-a-half-month break that was as much psychological as physical. He healed his body and met with a dietician, packing five pounds of muscle onto his already cut frame. He dialed in his TaylorMade equipment, shoring up a putting stroke and wedge game that was shockingly poor for a player of his caliber. Perhaps most importantly, he cleared his cluttered mind, cruising around Italy with wife Erica in a 1950s Mercedes convertible.
After an intense buildup to his season debut, McIlroy was curious about the true state of his game, about how he’d stack up when he finally put a scorecard in his hand. It didn’t take him long to find out.
Playing the first two rounds alongside Dustin Johnson – the undisputed world No. 1 who was fresh off a blowout victory at Kapalua – McIlroy beat him by a shot. Despite a 103-day competitive layoff, he played bogey-free for 52 holes. And he put himself in position to win, trailing by one heading into the final round. Though Fleetwood blew away the field with a back-nine 30 to defend his title, McIlroy collected his eighth top-5 in his last nine appearances in Abu Dhabi.
“I know it’s only three months,” he said, “but things change, and I felt like maybe I needed a couple of weeks to get back into the thought process that you need to get into for competitive golf. I got into that pretty quickly this week, so that was the most pleasing thing.”
The sense of relief afterward was palpable. McIlroy is entering his 11th full year as a pro, and deep down he likely realizes 2018 is shaping up as his most important yet.
The former Boy Wonder is all grown up, and his main challengers now are a freakish athlete (DJ) and a trio of players under 25 (Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm) who don’t lack for motivation or confidence. The landscape has changed significantly since McIlroy’s last major victory, in August 2014, and the only way he’ll be able to return to world No. 1 is to produce a sustained period of exceptional golf, like the rest of the game’s elite. (Based on average points, McIlroy, now ranked 11th, is closer to the bottom of the rankings, No. 1928, than to Johnson.)
But after years of near-constant turmoil, McIlroy, 28, finally seems ready to pursue that goal again. He is planning the heaviest workload of his career – as many as 30 events, including seven more starts before the Masters – and appears refreshed and reenergized, perhaps because this year, for the first time in a while, he is playing without distractions.
Not his relationships or his health. Not his equipment or his caddie or his off-course dealings.
Everything in his life is lined up.
Drama tends to follow one of the sport’s most captivating characters, but for now he can just play golf – lots and lots of golf. How liberating.
Crocker among quartet of Open qualifiers in Singapore
Former amateur standout Sean Crocker was among four players who qualified for the 147th Open via top-12 finishes this week at the Asian Tour's SMBC Singapore Open as part of the Open Qualifying Series.
Crocker had a strong college career at USC before turning pro late last year. The 21-year-old received an invitation into this event shortly thereafter, and he made the most of his appearance with a T-6 finish to net his first career major championship berth.
There were four spots available to those not otherwise exempt among the top 12 in Singapore, but winner Sergio Garcia and runners-up Shaun Norris and Satoshi Kodaira had already booked their tickets for Carnoustie. That meant that Thailand's Danthai Boonma and Jazz Janewattanond both qualified thanks to T-4 finishes.
Crocker nabbed the third available qualifying spot, while the final berth went to Australia's Lucas Herbert. Herbert entered the week ranked No. 274 in the world and was the highest-ranked of the three otherwise unqualified players who ended the week in a tie for eighth.
The next event in the Open Qualifying Series will be in Japan at the Mizuno Open in May, when four more spots at Carnoustie will be up for grabs. The 147th Open will be held July 19-22 in Carnoustie, Scotland.
Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again
Ross Fisher is in the midst of a career resurgence - he just doesn't have the hardware to prove it.
Fisher entered the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship with a share of the lead, and as he made the turn he appeared in position to claim his first European Tour victory since March 2014. But he slowed just as Tommy Fleetwood caught fire, and when the final putt fell Fisher ended up alone in second place, two shots behind his fellow Englishman.
It continues a promising trend for Fisher, who at age 37 now has 14 career runner-up finishes and three in his last six starts dating back to October. He was edged by Tyrrell Hatton both at the Italian Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in the fall, and now has amassed nine worldwide top-10 finishes since March.
Fisher took a big step toward ending his winless drought with an eagle on the par-5 second followed by a pair of birdies, and he stood five shots clear of Fleetwood with only nine holes to go. But while Fleetwood played Nos. 10-15 in 4 under, Fisher played the same stretch in 2 over and was unable to eagle the closing hole to force a playoff.
While Fisher remains in search of an elusive trophy, his world ranking has benefited from his recent play. The veteran was ranked outside the top 100 in the world as recently as September 2016, but his Abu Dhabi runner-up result is expected to move him inside the top 30 when the new rankings are published.
McIlroy (T-3) notches another Abu Dhabi close call
Rory McIlroy's trend of doing everything but hoist the trophy at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship is alive and well.
Making his first start since early October, McIlroy showed few signs of rust en route to a tie for third. Amid gusty winds, he closed with a 2-under 70 to finish the week at 18 under, four shots behind Tommy Fleetwood who rallied to win this event for the second consecutive year.
The result continues a remarkable trend for the Ulsterman, who has now finished third or better seven of the last eight years in Abu Dhabi - all while never winning the tournament. That stretch includes four runner-up finishes and now two straight T-3 results.
McIlroy is entering off a disappointing 2017 in which he was injured in his first start and missed two chunks of time while trying to regain his health. He has laid out an ambitious early-season schedule, one that will include a trip to Dubai next week and eight worldwide tournament starts before he heads to the Masters.
McIlroy started the final round one shot off the lead, and he remained in contention after two birdies over his first four holes. But a bogey on No. 6 slowed his momentum, and McIlroy wasn't able to make a back-nine birdie until the closing hole, at which point the title was out of reach.