Right now, the Evian Championship feels more like a major showcase for Group Danone than it does a major championship for women’s golf.
Group Danone is the French multinational corporation and title sponsor that owns Evian.
Stick a big, fat asterisk on Sunday’s result.
It’s an asterisk that this observer doesn’t assign lightly, because it goes on the gold-star resume of an LPGA commissioner. It goes on the resume of a leader whose transformative vision thrives in part because he so often challenges traditional thinking.
More on Mike Whan later.
The way the Evian Championship began – with scores wiped clean after an abbreviated start, with the quick decision to shorten the event to 54 holes before bothering to wait and see if play could be made up on the weekend – were huge clues where the priorities lie in the fifth major in women’s golf. And so was the final scene, with the sudden-death playoff slogging through high winds, hard rain and even hail, with no LPGA official stepping in to halt play.
The priority didn’t appear to be identifying the best player by setting up a thorough examination of skill, concentration and resolve. The priority appeared to be to finish on Sunday, barring fire and brimstone coming down from the sky, and barring the pond at the 18th hole turning to blood.
The most damning scene was the last, with Anna Nordqvist and Brittany Altomare at the decisive playoff hole. Even with a crew scrambling to squeegee the green, it was raining so hard that a number of large puddles re-formed before Altomare could hit her third shot. Nordqvist said she could feel hail coming down as she prepared to hit her third shot.
Unless Altomare made the long walk to the green to examine where she could safely land the ball between the puddles, skill wasn’t being tested when it mattered most in the end. A good shot could have splashed, splatted, skipped or become submerged on its way to its final resting spot.
By allowing Altomare to play to a green so obviously unfit for deciding who wins a major, the LPGA put the integrity of the competition in jeopardy.
Fortuitously, neither player hit the green with her third shot, and a crew then squeegeed paths for their chip shots.
Why did finishing on time appear more important than presenting the best possible test to measure a champion? Why was the inconvenience of 72 holes or a Monday finish so abhorrent with no LPGA event scheduled to follow this week?
Whether it was to maximize Sunday’s TV window exposure, to satisfy the ideal needs of an important title sponsor, or to avoid the expense of a Monday finish and the complications of extending lodging in a small resort town is still unclear. It could be all of that and more.
But the LPGA insists the decisions were made solely by the tour.
What is clear is that all those potential reasons conflict with the traditional understanding of what defines a major championship. What’s clear is that the sacrosanct principles we have come to revere majors for don’t appear so sacrosanct to the LPGA.
The tour’s loyalists will tell you that’s not fair.
They will tell you sacrosanct is the luxury of the rich. The women’s game isn’t rich like the men’s game. It’s why four of the five LPGA majors depend on title sponsors as “partners” to stage the competition. It’s why four of the five women’s majors have pro-ams. It’s why quality partners are so vital to the health of the women’s majors.
While there are practical realities to the economics of the women’s game, challenges the men don’t face, majors by anyone’s definition must be held to higher standards.
It’s why I’ve stamped a big, fat asterisk on Sunday’s results, which is meant as no disrespect to Anna Nordqvist, whose never-quit attitude would likely have made her the winner if this event had stretched to 108 holes.
The asterisk honors all the majors that have held themselves to a higher standard and all the major championship winners whose special efforts set them apart in history’s evaluation of the game’s greats.
And that’s our cue to go to commissioner Whan’s gold-star resume.
It’s important here to document exactly how important Whan is to the LPGA, how his transformative vision saved a withering tour and set it on such a promising course. He has some very effective governing principles, and he isn’t apologetic about how they may clash with the game’s traditions.
It’s why Whan wasn’t afraid to unilaterally declare that Evian is a major. It’s why he wasn’t afraid to ask players to compete for no paycheck in the Founders Cup’s first year. It’s why he embraced Asia’s possibilities when so many others were telling him he needed to focus more intensely on building the tour’s domestic foundation.
Whan has earned the high praise he has gotten so often on this website.
The gold star he earned for rebuilding a floundering tour from 23 events and $40 million in total prize money in 2011 to 34 events and a record $65 million this year . . .
The gold star for understanding that Asian dominance wasn’t a liability, but a real strength to be built up, so much so that the partnerships he built with Korean TV helped carry the LPGA through its lean years . . .
The gold star he built as a trustworthy leader that the PGA Tour, the PGA of America, the USGA and the LET valued in creating new partnerships with the PGA Tour-LPGA Alliance, the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, LPGA-USGA Girls’ Golf and more co-sanctioned LET events . . .
The gold star he risked creating the Founders Cup, asking players to compete for no paycheck that first year, which launched a special event that honors the LPGA’s past while paying forward with support to the Girls’ Golf program. This scribe was highly skeptical in that event’s start . . .
The gold star for the International Crown, an idea so much better than the Presidents Cup, with Whan insisting players compete under their own flags . . .
We could go on and on, but the point is that one of the foundational practices of the servanthood leadership style that has been so instrumental in Whan turning around the LPGA is also at the heart of why the Evian Championship gets an asterisk.
When Whan took over the LPGA, he remade the business with his “role reversal” concept. He saw that staff was too intensely focused on tournament operations, and not focused enough on understanding and serving the check writers.
“We have to start thinking like title sponsors,” Whan told his staff.
It’s no cheap shot to note that here, because it seems to be integral to what happened at Evian, and why a women’s tour so dependent on title sponsors for its majors would be less committed to the principles by which we have come to define majors. It seems to be integral to why a women’s tour would seem less committed to the importance of completing 72 holes, of playing the ball down, of playing courses that are true major championship tests.
There is genius in Whan’s leadership style, which is based on the personal credibility he has built with his business partners and players. Role reversal works, but the question is whether it works at majors.
As the LPGA chief, Whan is often asked to take off his salesman/marketing hat and put on his commissioner’s hat. At a major, it’s a more challenging proposition.
Franck Riboud and Group Danone are good for women’s golf. The partnership is good for the LPGA. The game is better because of them, and because of the investment they’ve made renovating Evian Resort Golf Club, and because of the giant increase in the purse they made this year. The $3.65 million purse is exceeded only by the U.S. Women’s Open among LPGA events.
None of that, however, makes Evian feel like it is measuring up as a major since Whan declared it one five years ago.
There are still issues with the course as a major championship test. The lowest 18-hole score (61) and 72-hole score (21 under) in the history of men’s or women’s golf were posted there. Too often in its short history, there have been too many ground-under-repair markings, with all the September rain.
And when the course is speeded up to repel scoring, or pin placements are put on the spines of some of those humps and swales in the greens, shots border on being unfair.
Riboud’s working on it, and Whan’s working on it, but we saw decisions last week that clash with major championship tradition. We saw a big, fat asterisk.