LPGA Leaders Juggle Crises

By Randall MellJuly 24, 2009, 4:00 pm
LPGA Tour _newMichelle Ellis sees the answer to the LPGAs problems in her father.
 
She always sees answers to lifes challenges in her father and still sees them even as a particularly malicious form of cancer ravages his body.
 
She sees answers in his persevering spirit as his maddening six-year fight with Chondrosarcoma reaches its most harrowing stage.
 
Radiation and chemotherapy cant even touch this cancer, Ellis said. Right now, the cancers getting the best of him, but he keeps fighting. Hes really fought this thing to the end. He doesnt quit on things, and thats the way he brought me up. I think thats why I can get a little frustrated on people who quit on things.
 
Ellis is the LPGA president, one of seven voting player directors on the associations governing board. She is leading the membership through one of the most challenging periods in its 59-year history. Over the last three weeks, she has done the difficult work of severing the tours ties with Carolyn Bivens, a commissioner she considered a mentor, and helping steer the search for the tours next leader. She has done all of this while working from her parents Australian home helping her mother and sister take care of her ailing father.
 
She can testify to the wondrous power of modern-day telecommunication systems.
 
Ellis isnt alone in the business of juggling personal and professional crises.
 
Sherri Steinhauer, the LPGAs vice president, is doing the same difficult work for the tour from her parents home in Madison, Wis.
 
The week LPGA players delivered a letter asking for Bivens resignation is the same week doctors told Steinhauers mother that she has breast cancer. Steinhauer helped manage the tours crisis while sleeping nights aside her mothers hospital bed.
 
The LPGAs focus is all about leadership right now.
 
Why didnt Bivens leadership work? Who is going to step up and rescue the tour? What kind of new business model is required to save the association?
 
They are daunting questions that can leave the most devoted LPGA supporters uncertain about the tours future.
 
The great hope in this difficult episode is the story that hasnt been told yet. Its in the determination and resolve Ellis and Steinhauer have shown behind the scenes. Its in the sacrifices the duo has made serving a varied constituency that can be almost impossible to please.
 
There have been stressful times for the both of us, Ellis said. There have been times when weve just been emotionally drained, times when it seemed like it was just all too much, but you dont show that in the board room.
 
Ellis and Steinhauer have shown it to each other. Theyve barked their frustrations at each other, and theyve cried when nobody but the other has seen or heard.
 
When Sherri found out about her mother, I knew what she was feeling, Ellis said. Its overwhelming. I would call to check on her, and she would call to check on me. Weve become really good friends, and I think weve complemented each other well.
 
When Ellis succeeded Hilary Lunke as tour president this year, she had no idea how critical her term would prove to be. She had no idea how taxing it would be on her ability as a player, either.
 
Michelle has put her heart and soul in this, said Steinhauer, an eight-time LPGA winner on medical leave this season. She hasnt made a cut this year. Her family has its own issues. Its amazing, absolutely amazing, what shes done and how much she cares about the LPGA.
 
A two-time Australian Amateur champion from the small community of Casino in New South Wales, Ellis, 33, is enduring her worst season on tour. She has yet to make a cut in 11 starts. The struggles cant be blamed on injury. She says the presidents role has become more important to her than her game.
 
'In this economy, with whats happening to tournaments, we have a lot of players who are scared about the future, Ellis said. The presidents job involves being a little bit of a mother hen. Ive spent a lot of time this year reassuring players, calming them down. I end up talking to a lot of players when Im out on tour, and it takes a lot out of you, but I do love being on this side of it. I never thought I would, but I do.
 
Tending to family health issues has also shifted her priorities. Her father, Bob, 61, was an account manager for Blackwoods Industrial, an industrial products supplier. He also serves as president of Casinos Return Servicemens Club, a sort of Australian VFW. A victim of an aggressive form of bone cancer, Ellis father lost his left leg three years ago to amputation. Part of his lungs has been removed, and he no longer has the use of his left arm. The cancer also is now eating into his hips.
 
Ive always relied on my father, calling him for advice, getting his opinion about what he would do about things, Ellis said.
 
Steinhauer, 46, also helps her in that role now. Ellis has great respect for the veterans wisdom.
 
I can be a little hot-headed, Ellis said. Sherris a calming influence. She has really helped me put in place how to get through things.
 
Steinhauers family issues are consuming as well. Her mother, Nancie, was forced back into the hospital after breast cancer surgery because of complications.
 
Steinhauer has her own health issues. She is out this season while recuperating from a pair of surgeries to repair bone spurs, labral and tendon tears and chronic pain in both hips. She spent five weeks this winter on crutches after the first surgery and was back on them again in the spring after the second surgery. Shes engaged in the hard work of rehabilitation still unsure whether shell ever be an elite player again.
 
I havent hit a golf shot since August of 2008, said Steinhauer, a three-time Womens British Open champ who will miss next weeks event.
 
Scheduled to begin hitting shots sometime this month, Steinhauer has poured herself into serving the tour and her family.
 
Its a pivotal time for the tour, Steinhauer said. Were elected to the board, and theres a lot of pressure and responsibility. We take the responsibilities extremely seriously.
 
Ellis hasnt teed it up since the Jamie Farr Owens Corning Classic three weeks ago. She walked off the course in the first round there and directly to a dinner that would drastically alter the future of the tour. She joined fellow player directors Juli Inkster and Helen Alfredsson in listening to the complaints of high-profile tour pros, complaints that would lead to Ellis overseeing the draft of a letter asking for Bivens resignation.
 
It was a trying test of leadership for Ellis because of her respect for Bivens.
 
It was tough, because Carolyn was a wonderful mentor to me, Ellis said. I spoke to her a lot, and we were a wonderful team and I miss her.
 
But Ellis ultimately understood her role as the memberships leader.
 
You do whats in the best interests of the tour, Ellis said.
 
Those are the sacrifices Ellis and Steinhauer are making in all of this even as they make them for their own families.
 
In that respect, they embody the spirit of the tours founding members, women who endured through every obstacle life presented them.
 
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