Surprise candidate emerges in LPGA commissioner search


LPGA Tour _newJonathan Ward has quietly emerged as a serious candidate in the LPGA’s three-month search for its next commissioner, according to golf industry sources.

Ward is a golf outsider whose ascent in the interview process has taken industry observers by surprise because he doesn’t have the “ideal experience” the headhunting firm Spencer Stuart identified in the “position and candidate specification” document it released when the commissioner’s search was launched. Ward has not worked in the golf or professional sports business.

Ward, 55, is the senior adviser at the investment firm Kohlberg & Co., and has led corporations before as chief executive officer of ServiceMaster and president and chief operating officer of R.R. Donnelley & Sons. Before moving to Kohlberg & Co. three months ago, Ward was the managing director of the investment banking firm Lazard Freres & Co. He has served on the board of directors of Sara Lee since October of 2005.

Not on the search committee’s radar until he earnestly reached out to LPGA officials, Ward won himself an interview, according to sources. Ward made contact with a number of LPGA insiders, impressing them with his corporate expertise, vision and passion to make a difference. He’s impressed the search committee enough that he’s believed to have joined U.S. Golf Association chief business officer Peter Bevacqua among the finalists for the job.

The LPGA search has been tightly guarded with few names emerging from the candidate’s list.

Bevacqua has been believed to be the frontrunner for the job since WNBA commissioner Donna Orender announced she was not interested in the position. Orender and Bevacqua fit the “ideal experience” the search committee sought. The committee identified “business leadership experience in golf or a sports company' as important and 'a passion for and understanding of golf and the relationships within the golf industry' as required.

Ward did not return a message at his New York office seeking comment. He graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a degree in chemical engineering and also completed the Harvard Business School Advanced Management Program.

Carolyn Bivens was forced out as commissioner in a player revolt in July. She joined the tour after making her name as an advertising executive at USA Today and later president of a media services agency. When Bivens was forced out, the tour had just 13 tournaments under contract for next year.

Marty Evans moved up from the LPGA Board of Directors to become acting commissioner and led a rally that has seen the number of events under contract for 2010 grow to 18. The tour is projecting it will feature a schedule of 23 to 25 tournaments next year. That’s a drop from 27 this year and 34 a year ago. The tour hasn’t put out a schedule with fewer than 25 tournaments since 1971.

Total prize money for LPGA pros could plunge to as low as $40 million next season, according to industry experts. That would be more than $24 million less than the women played for last year.

All of that brings into focus the importance of the tour’s next hire as commissioner.

“It is the most important hire in the tour’s history,” said one LPGA insider. “With all the mistakes they’ve made, the tour can’t mess this up. They’ve got to take the time to make sure they get the right person.”

The LPGA hasn’t revealed when it will announce the hire of its next commissioner, but sources expect the announcement to come before the season-ending LPGA Tour Championship begins on Nov. 19.