Did Asians save the LPGA?

By Randall MellMay 4, 2016, 7:55 pm

Asians aren’t killing the tour, as a prominent LPGA player once harshly suggested.

On the contrary, they might have saved it.

For the sixth time in the last seven tournaments, a domestic LPGA event is being title sponsored by an Asian company.

This week’s Yokohama Tire Classic is an example of how the women’s tour has turned what was once perceived as one of its biggest problems into one of its greatest assets.

OK, if Asian dominance didn’t actually save the tour, it certainly played a large role in helping rebuild it.

In 2011, the LPGA withered through the aftereffects of an American recession to a bare-bones schedule of 23 events. There were seven Asian companies sponsoring events that year. Today, there are 33 official events on the LPGA schedule with 14 sponsored by Asian companies or organizations. Notably, one third of the title sponsors of U.S. events this year are Asian (6/18).

Yokohama, a Japanese tire company, is in the third and final year of its contract as title sponsor of this week’s event on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail in Prattville, Ala. The LPGA is in talks to renew the deal.

“As healthy as the LPGA is now, one of the hidden factors in our health is how diversified we are in our support,” LPGA commissioner Mike Whan said. “We have gone through a lot of regional recessions [around the world] in our seven years but none of them has brought us to our knees, where back in 2008 a regional recession really did.”

The aftershocks of the U.S. recession in 2008 and some hardline business tactics by Whan’s predecessor helped lead to the loss of a large number of domestic title sponsors. The LPGA went from 24 cash-paying domestic events in 2008 to just 12 in 2011. The LPGA’s ability to capitalize on its popularity in Asia helped right the foundering ship that Whan inherited.

“We are tremendously more stable now,” said Jon Podany, the LPGA’s chief marketing officer. “Our revenues are up 60 percent or more over that time frame. I don't have the exact percentage of what portion comes from international investments with me right now, but it has to be over half.”

Whan was asked if he believes enough Americans understand the strength Asian players have given the tour’s financial foundation.

“From a business perspective, it’s 100 percent understood,” Whan said. “Back in 2009, even businesses were saying there was way too much Asian influence on tour. You would hear, `I don’t know anyone, and I don’t know how to pronounce their names.’ Even sponsors were saying that, but now sponsors are saying there’s a huge competitive advantage being so international. We’re not there yet from a fan base perspective. There is still that stereotype.”

But Whan says Asian players are changing that with the way they’re connecting with American pro-am partners, media and fans. The work Inbee Park, Ai Miyazato, So Yeon Ryu, Na Yeon Choi, Yani Tseng and others have done mastering English is making a difference.

“The good news is that with super overachieving athletes, you don’t have to force them to do much,” Whan said. “They know it’s in the best interests of both their games and their business.”

While the domination of international players in the LPGA ranks is still deemed a drawback by some American fans, the tour’s bottom line tells a different story. Podany said South Korean television agreements are still the LPGA’s top revenue source.

Lotte, JTBC, Kia, All Nippon Airways, Swinging Skirts and Yokohama are all Asian-based companies, but they’re all sponsoring LPGA events played in the United States. Lotte is a multinational conglomerate with headquarters in South Korea and Japan, JTBC is a South Korean television network, Kia is a South Korean-based car manufacturer, ANA is a Japanese airline and Swinging Skirts is a Taiwanese golf foundation.

Whan said the LPGA’s variety of international business support is like having a diversified portfolio. It has helped the LPGA survive economic issues in the United States, Canada and even in Asia.

“Now if the U.S. hiccups, it doesn’t stymie the LPGA like it did back in 2008 and ’09,” Whan said.

Whan said Yokohama is an example of how the LPGA’s growing popularity internationally has helped domestic growth, too.

“In the past, the LPGA might have looked at Yokohama as a good company to sponsor a Japanese tournament,” Whan said. “And now we look at Yokohama as a worldwide tire company that has multiple headquarter locations. So, let’s talk to Yokohama about where things work for their business, not the other way around.

“We met with Lotte not looking for Hawaii. We met with Lotte looking for Lotte. Hawaii turned out to be a good place to create something pretty significant on the schedule. Also, a lot of our international events, we don’t want to have more than one event in certain countries [where other nations have their tours]. We don’t want to show up and play on somebody else’s home turf 12 times.”

Podany said the global nature of the LPGA’s membership and the tour’s international television reach has changed sponsorship possibilities. With intense interest in the LPGA in South Korea, Japan and other Asian countries, and with LPGA events broadcast there, the tour has become a vehicle for Asian companies to reach audiences no matter where the event is actually played.

“In some cases, companies are trying to make stronger inroads in North America, and so they are using the LPGA as a vehicle to help build their businesses here,” Podany said. “In other cases, they may not have had a big presence here before, and they are doing it because of how big the LPGA has become in Asia, because of how TV is distributed around the world and because we have such a strong digital following in Japan, Korea and other Asian countries.”

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What's in the bag: CareerBuilder winner Rahm

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 22, 2018, 10:37 pm

Jon Rahm defeated Andrew Landry in a playoff to earn his second PGA Tour title at the CareerBuilder Challenge. Here's what's in his bag:

Driver: TaylorMade M4 (9.5 degrees), with Aldila Tour Green 75 TX shaft

Fairway wood: TaylorMade M3 (19 degrees), with Aldila Tour Green 75 TX shaft

Irons: TaylorMade P790 (3), P750 (4-PW), with Project X 6.5 shafts

Wedges: TaylorMade Milled Grind (52, 56 degrees), Milled Grind Hi-Toe (60 degrees), with Project X 6.5 shafts

Putter: TaylorMade Spider Tour Red

Ball: TaylorMade TP5x

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Strange irked by Rahm-Landry friendly playoff

By Jason CrookJanuary 22, 2018, 9:45 pm

Curtis Strange knows a thing or two about winning golf tournaments, and based on his reaction to the CareerBuilder Challenge playoff on Sunday, it’s safe to say he did things a little differently while picking up 17 PGA Tour victories in his Hall-of-Fame career.

While Jon Rahm and Andrew Landry were “battling” through four extra holes, Strange, 62, tweeted his issues with the duo’s constant chit-chat and friendly banter down the stretch at La Quinta Country Club, where Rahm eventually came out on top.

The two-time U.S. Open champ then engaged with some followers to explain his point a little more in depth.

So, yeah ... don't think he's changing his perspective on this topic anytime soon ever.

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Randall's Rant: The Euros won't just roll over

By Randall MellJanuary 22, 2018, 9:36 pm

The Ryder Cup may not be the King Kong of golf events yet, but you can hear the biennial international team event thumping its chest a full eight months out.

As anticipation for this year’s big events goes, there is more buzz about Europe’s bid to hold off a rejuvenated American effort in Paris in September than there is about the Masters coming up in April.

Thank Europe’s phenomenal success last weekend for that.

And Rory McIlroy’s impassioned remarks in Abu Dhabi.

And the provocative bulletin board material a certain Sports Illustrated writer provided the Europeans a couple months ago, with a stinging assault on the Euro chances that read like an obituary.

McIlroy was asked in a news conference before his 2018 debut last week what he was most excited about this year.

The Ryder Cup topped his list.

Though McIlroy will be trying to complete the career Grand Slam at Augusta National come April, he talked more about the Ryder Cup than he did any of the game’s major championships.

When asked a follow-up about the American team’s resurgence after a task-force overhaul and the injection of young, new star power, McIlroy nearly started breaking down the matchup. He talked about the young Americans and how good they are.

“Yeah, the Americans have been, obviously, very buoyant about their chances and whatever, but it’s never as easy as that. ... The Ryder Cup’s always close,” McIlroy said. “I think we’ll have a great team, and it definitely won’t be as easy as they think it’s going to be.”

McIlroy may have been talking about Alan Shipnuck’s bold prediction after the American Presidents Cup rout last fall.

Or similar assertions from TV analysts.

“The Ryder Cup is dead – you just don’t know it yet,” Shipnuck wrote. “One of the greatest events in sport is on the verge of irrelevancy. The young, talented, hungry golfers from the United States, benefitting from the cohesive leadership of the Task Force era, are going to roll to victory in 2018 in Paris.”

European Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn won’t find words that will motivate the Euros more than that as he watches his prospective players jockey to make the team.

And, boy, did they jockey last weekend.

The Euros dominated across the planet, not that they did it with the Ryder Cup as some rallying cry, because they didn’t. But it was a heck of an encouraging start to the year for Bjorn to witness.

Spain’s Jon Rahm won the CareerBuilder Challenge on the PGA Tour, England’s Tommy Fleetwood started the week at Abu Dhabi paired with American and world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and won the European Tour event, and Spain’s Sergio Garcia won the Singapore Open in a rout on the Asian Tour.

And McIlroy looked close to being in midseason form, tying for third in his first start in three months.

Yes, it’s only January, and the Ryder Cup is still a long way off, with so much still to unfold, but you got an early sense from McIlroy how much defending European turf will mean to him and the Euros in Paris in September.

The Masters is great theater, the U.S. Open a rigorous test, The Open and the PGA Championship historically important, too, but the Ryder Cup touches a nerve none of those do.

The Ryder Cup stokes more fervor, provokes more passion and incites more vitriol than any other event in golf.

More bulletin board material, too.

Yeah, it’s a long way off, but you can already hear the Ryder Cup’s King Kong like footsteps in its distant approach. Watching how the American and European teams come together will be an ongoing drama through spring and summer.

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Quail Hollow officials promise players easier conditions

By Rex HoggardJanuary 22, 2018, 9:14 pm

Quail Hollow Club - a staple on the PGA Tour since 2003 - debuted as a longer, tougher version of itself at last year’s PGA Championship, receiving mixed reviews from players.

The course played to a lengthened 7,600 yards at last year’s PGA and a 73.46 stroke average, the toughest course in relation to par on Tour in 2017. As a result, it left some players less than excited to return to the Charlotte, N.C.-area layout later this spring for the Wells Fargo Championship.

It’s that lack of enthusiasm that led officials at Quail Hollow to send a video to players saying, essentially, that the course players have lauded for years will be back in May.

The video, which includes Quail Hollow president Johnny Harris and runs nearly five minutes, begins with an explanation of how the first hole, which played as a 524-yard par 4 at the PGA, will play much shorter at the Wells Fargo Championship.

“I had a number of my friends who were playing in the tournament tell me that tee was better suited as a lemonade stand,” Harris joked of the new tee box on the fourth hole. “I doubt we’ll ever see that tee used again in competition.”

Harris also explained that the greens, which became too fast for some, will be “softer” for this year’s Wells Fargo Championship.