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Randall's Rant: More LPGA players need to step up to the plate

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The purists don’t get it.

Apparently, a lot of LPGA pros don’t either.

The start of the tour season looks as if it will be one step forward and one step backward, thanks to some of its tone-deaf players.

Let’s start with the step forward.

LPGA commissioner Mike Whan is excited about the creative new formats he is bringing to the schedule this year. He drilled the bull’s-eye in the season opener last weekend, drafting Diamond Resorts CEO Mike Flaskey and his celebrity stars as partners in a showcase that brought his tour to a unique new stage.

The purists may not have liked the sideshows that came with country music stars Toby Keith and Lee Brice and comedian Larry the Cable Guy, but they weren’t seeing the bigger picture. 

Whan doesn’t have the luxury of catering solely to the purists. Yes, he’s giving his fan base a whole bunch of that on a regular basis, but he’s also going after a larger audience in his quest to elevate his players’ profiles and the tour’s popularity.

Bravo to all the LPGA stars who got into spirit of the Diamond Resorts format.

Rolex world No. 1 Ariya Jutanugarn quickly figured out that the big galleries weren’t really there to see the LPGA stars. They were there to get selfies with NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL greats, as well as the entertainers.

“Nobody asked me for an autograph,” Jutanugarn said.

Like Jutanugarn, nine-time LPGA winner Shanshan Feng saw the beauty in that.

“They’re here for the celebrities, which is good, because it brings them to the tournament, and they actually start falling in love with it,” Feng said. 

One of Whan’s most important mantras for players and staff is posted on a sign for all to see at LPGA headquarters in Daytona Beach, Fla.

"Act Like a Founder!"

Whan wants his players to channel the spirit of the tour’s 13 founders, the women who barnstormed the country, marketing their tournaments in a creative and unconventional fashion.

Those founders built the tour visiting Rotary clubs, county fairs and movie theaters to promote the week’s tournament. Babe Zaharias was among founders who stepped up to home plate between innings of minor league baseball games to hit golf shots out of the park. Shirley Spork remembers waiting to step into a boxing ring between rounds at a prize fight, so she could sell tickets to a tournament.

“There was blood spattering all over the place,” Smith once said.  “It was gross.”

All those women who showed up at the Diamond Resorts TOC were acting like founders.

Now for the step backward.

Somewhere, Babe is rolling over in her grave.

The ISPS Handa Vic Open is up next in Australia (Feb. 7-10). It’s another important new event, given the gender-pay and equal-rights issues rolled into it. 

But LPGA pros are skipping it in embarrassing numbers. 

Just five of the top 50 players in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings are scheduled to play, according to the final field list on the LPGA’s website.

That’s more than a shame.

It’s a setback in the women’s fight to narrow the gender pay gap.

The Vic Open is important because it is co-sanctioned with the men’s European Tour, the PGA Tour of Australasia and the Australian Ladies Professional Golf Association.

It’s a really big deal, because men and women will play the same course, at the same time, for the same prize money.

Yes, the Vic Open’s LPGA purse is only $1.1 million, but it’s the principle being advocated that makes it worth playing.

A star-studded leaderboard brings more attention to the powerful message sent in the male/female format. We saw that at the Diamond Resorts TOC last weekend. The LPGA’s biggest stars added credibility to the competition.

If LPGA pros really want to play more mixed events with men, they needed to show up. They needed to act like a tour founder.

Top players skipping the Vic Open in such large numbers don’t understand the message they’re sending. The top women may not be forfeiting their right to argue for narrowing the gender pay gap, but they lose credibility doing so after this. They’re giving ammunition to men who sneer whenever they read LPGA pros talk about equal purses.

Brooke Henderson, Minjee Lee and Georgia Hall are the only players among the top 10 in the Rolex rankings scheduled to play. Charley Hull and Pernilla Lindberg are the only other players among the top 50.

Karrie Webb, Laura Davies, Catriona Matthew, Paula Creamer and Morgan Pressel are in the field, adding star power from outside the current top 50.

Yes, players may have perfectly good reasons for skipping the Vic Open. Illness, injury, easing back after the birth of a child, other family issues and professional conflicts are among them, but the size of the purse shouldn’t be.

Scheduling issues shouldn’t be, either. The Vic Open may be the first of four consecutive events in Asia, but it demands a priority place on every player’s schedule this year. If you have to, skip another event this year. 

“We’ve worked very hard with our sponsors and partners to attain the standards stipulated by the LPGA when we first discussed this possibility,” Golf Australia’s chief executive Stephen Pitt said back when the LPGA agreed to co-sanction. “For a tournament that has become revered for its progressive thinking, we are excited to take it to the next level.”

Apparently, a lot of LPGA stars aren’t.