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.