LPGA Strengths and Weaknesses

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LPGA Tour _newCristie Kerr no doubt cracked open a bottle of her own Curvature wine on Sunday evening and sat sipping with husband, Erik Stevens, thinking about what might have been. Kerr was five shots ahead on the back nine of Saturday’s third round at the Navistar LPGA Classic, but a wayward drive at the 15th hole was the beginning of her unraveling and led to high drama for the closing 18.

Kerr needed to tie for second or better to move back to No. 1 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings, but instead of chipping in to force a playoff with eventual winner Katherine Hull on 18, Kerr bogeyed, fell to third in the tournament and only moved from third to second in the rankings.

The battle for the top spot in the world rankings has been an on-going theme since Lorena Ochoa stepped away in April. A big five of Jiyai Shin, Ai Miyazato, Yani Tseng, Suzann Pettersen and Kerr have emerged: five players, five countries and bucket loads of talent. By the end of this season, the five may have swelled to seven or eight, with Na Yeon Choi, Michelle Wie and Paula Creamer all within reach and showing signs of being ready to enter the race.

For someone new to the golf spectrum, this would seem like a sponsor and media dream. So why the lack of tournaments and why the lack of coverage in the mainstream golf media?

The stop-start schedule plays a big-role. This season, the tour began in the Far East, then halted for a few weeks before re-starting in March with a couple of great tournaments in California. The tour disappeared in April, stopping briefly for an event in Jamaica buried on CBS and Lorena’s swansong in Mexico, which wasn’t even televised in the U.S., before reappearing for two events in May, one in Mobile, Ala., the other in New Jersey.

This has been the trend all year:  good events, take a break, return with a couple of good events and so on. It's frustrating for all involved, especially the fans, who have had no-way of following story lines because as soon as they realized what was going on, the tour abruptly halted. This isn’t news to LPGA headquarters. Commissioner Mike Whan and his team are working around the clock to try and secure a better schedule, but bottom line, the tour must play when and where sponsors want them to and sometimes that simply doesn’t fit into making the tour flow. This doesn’t look likely to change next season.

A second factor surely has to do with Tiger Woods. For most of 2010, the golf media was all Tiger all the time and other stories simply got forgotten. At the Kraft Nabisco Championship, the first major of the season, a large number of golf writers departed on the eve of the final round; they had to be at Augusta National Golf Club in time for Tiger’s big comeback press conference. After a really close finish, where Pettersen barely missed a chip-in for a playoff with Tseng, an earthquake ensued, literally, during the champion’s press conference, but it barely registered on the media Richter scale.

Even the LPGA Tour Championship, one of two flagship events (the other being the LPGA Championship) owned and operated by the tour, is going up against Tiger’s event in California. Guess where all the media attention will be going. Thankfully for the tour, the event is in Orlando, a home-game for Golf Channel and some other publications, forcing the hand for news coverage. Thirdly, the tour has an abundance of foreign players, leaving many U.S. fans struggling to identify with the majority of leading players. This should not be an issue, and I hope it begins to dwindle in the future. Foreign players are not going anywhere. There are still great American players, three of which – Kerr, Creamer and Wie – could well be vying for No. 1 bragging rights for the foreseeable future.

Instead of worrying about the lack of Americans, the focus should be on the eight best players, almost half of which are American and the others, save one of maybe two, speak pretty good English. Other sports organizations have no shame in promoting just their top players. The burden rests partly on the shoulders of the LPGA but mostly on the player’s shoulders. Just get out there and be noticed.

Finally, television rights play a big role. I’m obviously a little biased in this view, but Golf Channel is a good partner for the tour. It’s a permanent home for the broadcasts with resources worldwide and a team of people who really enjoy the tour and care for the product. The problem is, not all the events are branded by Golf Channel. When the tour goes to Asia, Golf Channel simply airs a world feed without familiar commentators or the look of what you might expect from one of our broadcasts. With the Asian market bursting at the seams for LPGA events, the addition of tournaments in the Far East is a foregone conclusion for the next few seasons. A consistent look throughout the season breeds familiarity with the viewers. Sponsors are sometimes more concerned by hospitality rather than visibility. That’s great, but not for the long-term health of the overall product and certainly not for people like you and me who enjoy watching quality golf broadcasts on television.  

This week is the penultimate LPGA event of 2010 on U.S. soil, the CVS/pharmacy LPGA Challenge, in Danville, Calif. It has already been announced that this particular sponsor is going to take their marketing dollars elsewhere next year. Tournament organizers will be looking for a new benefactor and I hope they find a good steady partner, but right now it would seem the odds are stacked against them. The overall product is strong. This is an unprecedented time for the tour; Judy Rankin and Beth Daniel, my colleagues in the both this season, say they cannot remember a time where this many players were vying to be the best on tour. The future is bright, but in order to reach those better times, much like the perfect golf shot, execution and a little luck is everything.