The changing state of the LPGA


LPGA Tour _newAree Song, Jessica Kordaand Shasta Averyhardt were among the big winners emerging from LPGAQ-School’s finish Sunday in Daytona Beach.

Song, the former teen phenom who has struggled with injuries and burnout, will chase her dream anew.

Korda, the daughter of former Australian Opentennis champ Petr Korda, made it through as a 17-year-old amateur and immediately turned pro.

Averyhardt became just the fourth African-American to earn LPGA membership, the first since LaRee Sugg in 2001.

So what exactly did they win with tour membership? What opportunities await in 2011 for LPGA Q-School graduates?

The tour could feature more tournaments next year than it did in 2010, but there’s the possibility that even with more events there will be fewer opportunities for Q-School grads and rank-and-file members. That’s because while there will be more foreign and limited-field events next year, there’s likely to be fewer American and full-field events.

The tour’s new growth plate is in foreign limited-field events.

While there may be some surprises when the 2011 LPGA schedule is released, here’s what we know:

• In 2008, there were 34 official money events, 24 of those in the United States.

• In 2010, there were 24 official money events, 14 in the United States.

• In 2011, there are 24 events we can pencil in on the schedule, only 12 of those in the United States. Again, there could be some surprise additions.

• In ’08 there were 25 full-field events (100 or more players), just 17 this year. There could be as few as 15 next year.

Next season, the LPGA is losing the CVS/pharmacy LPGA Challenge and the Jamie Farr Owens Corning Classic is taking a one-year hiatus. So that’s two less American events in ‘11. But, there are two new events being added in China and Taiwan.

“I think it’s the age we’re in,” two-time LPGA winner Christina Kim said of shrinking full-field events. “We have to cater to the top players. I’m not saying that is something we should or shouldn’t do. It just seems to be the way we’re going with sponsors wanting small-field events. Right now, we just have to follow the money.”

While you hear Americans lobbying for more U.S. events, Kim put her finger on the issue that crosses borders.

“It doesn’t matter what language it’s being spoken in, what you hear is that players want more opportunities,” Kim said.

Kim believes more American opportunities will come, but it makes sense to build where you can now.

“The money’s in Asia now,” says four-time LPGA winner Candie Kung.

American Cristie Kerr, a two-time major champion, wants a larger American schedule with more full-field events, but she understands the supply-and-demand equation.

“The top players, we make an amazing living, and the players that squeak by, it's hard,” Kerr said. “It's a hard economic background, because the companies that do want to invest right now, they want limited-field events. They want the top 50. It’s hard because the top-50 to -70 players on our tour sell the sponsorships. Those are the players fans want to come out and see. But at the same time, our tour was founded on principles of 120 to 140 players every week.”

Moira Dunn finished 81st on the LPGA money list this season, just outside the top 80, the LPGA’s equivalent of fully-exempt status. She made $80,449 in 14 starts. In ’08, Gloria Park finished 81st on the money list. She made $132,336 in 24 starts.

“The top players sell the sponsorships, but we still need to have 15 to 16 full-field events, or maybe even more, because those players can't make a living,” Kerr said.

LPGA commissioner Mike Whan has been selling his tour’s global growth as a positive since he stepped into his office this year. While he says it’s important to have a good American foundation, he believes the tour’s international nature should be applauded.

“The difference between playing in Franceand New Jersey was significant 30 years ago,” Whan said earlier this year. “It's not today.”

That’s something that’s debated, even within the tour’s player ranks, who want the most exposure they can get. Whan says his ultimate goal is to rebuild a schedule of 30 or so events. He wants to fashion a schedule where American players who want to build a schedule at home have enough events to do that, and where international players who want to focus more overseas can build the brunt of their schedule there.

Hall of Famer Annika Sorenstam met with Whan and the commissioner’s advisory council at the LPGA Tour Championship nearly two weeks ago. The American vs. international issues confronting the tour was a topic.

“The Tour has changed,” Sorenstam said. “Ten years ago, a lot of companies were 75 percent domestic, 25 percent international. Here we are, 10 years later, and companies are the opposite. They are 75 percent international, 25 percent domestic. The LPGA is not any different, as we all know.

It's becoming a global tour.

“So how do we adapt to that? How do we embrace that? How do we make the most out of that? I don't really think anybody has the answer. But Mike is working very hard to obviously create opportunities for the professionals. That's going to include all of these international tournaments.”

Ideally, players would like Whan to take advantage of the opportunities that are overseas today and then rebuild the American schedule when more robust economic times return. Still, there’s pressure. The LPGA Tour Championship still needs a title sponsor. The tour isn't on live TV as much as players would like. Young Q-School grads are limited in starts and money they need to make a living.

Whan understands, but he says he’s seeking to rebuild something with strong legs, and that takes time. He took over a tour hit hard by the economy and title sponsor backlash from his predecessor’s hard-line tactics.

“I get to nourish this thing four, five, six years,” Whan said. “My job is not to have a great couple of years. My job is to build this thing so it gets stronger and stronger.

“I’ve said to my staff, don’t rush events. Let’s bring in events that are thought out, so we can be in business with [title sponsors] as long as we’ve been in business with State Farm, Wegmans and Nabisco, because that’s what the LPGA deserves, that’s the legacy we need to leave.”

When it comes down to it, players want opportunities to play and make money. It’s any commissioner’s bottom line. It’s what Sunday’s Q-School grads need to survive.

Follow Randall Mell on Twitter @RandallMell