U.S. base not forgotten in the globalization of the LPGA

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The emergence of stars from the United States such as Cristie Kerr helps grow the LPGA's fan base. (Julio Cortez/AP file photo)

The LPGA truly is a global operation. Its 2011 schedule includes tournaments in 12 countries outside the United States, and the tour figures that 123 players from 25 countries are competing this year in addition to its U.S. participants.

The association's international flavor would appear to be a progressive trend, particularly with the return of golf to the Olympic Games in 2016. But it also might be turning off some who follow the LPGA in the United States, especially when it comes to figuring out when and where the next event will be played.

The tour is at the Jersey Shore this week for the ShopRite LPGA Classic, where 97 of its top 100 players are scheduled to compete. However, the ShopRite is one of just 13 tournaments to be played in the United States this year out of 25 on the schedule, and one of just eight U.S. "full-field" events, although there are a few others for which players may try to qualify.

Beefing up the LPGA Tour schedule, particularly in the United States, and eliminating the gaps that he admits are his "No. 1 frustration" is the job of tour commissioner Michael Whan, who is in his second year after replacing the controversial Carolyn Bivens.

Whan, 46, whose background is in marketing, said his priority is to build the U.S. portion of the tour even if it means holding off on worldwide expansion.

"I really have a desire and, quite frankly, an ability to expand our international schedule, but I'm holding off the pace of that expansion because I really want to make sure we grow our domestic base," Whan said two weeks ago at the Sybase Match Play Championship. "We don't want to wake up and not have a home. This is our home, in the U.S. I want to make sure we continue to grow that."

At the same time, Whan said he also must take a look at the opportunities internationally for the tour.

"I sort of get labeled as the global commissioner and I tell people, 'Hey, I didn't create this. I'm just calling it as I see it,' " he said. "Golf is a global business. The borders have been gone for a long time. I think the rest of the world is waking up to that now. It's kind of fun to watch.

"The Olympics is going to throw it all into hyper-speed. As a result, one of the benefits we're seeing is that great sponsors come from around the world, great fans come from around the world, great TV deals come from around the world. So while sometimes, as Americans, we can see the negative: 'Hey, they seem to be playing all over the place,' there's also some pretty incredible positives."

One negative, however, is gaps in the schedule. Just one tournament, an event in Birmingham, Ala., was played between the April 3 end of the Kraft Nabisco Championship and the May 19 start of the Sybase Match Play.

"To be honest with you, it's embarrassing to turn on a TV on the weekend and somebody is playing and it's not us," Whan said. "So filling those holes is a big deal. I do plan to play three or four weeks, take a week, then play three or four more weeks. Having those three or four weeks off doesn't help anybody."

One new tournament this year was the Founders Cup, in which all money won by the players went to charity even though the amount they tallied counted on the tour's official money list.

The commissioner sees hope on the horizon. The economy is better. New sponsors are showing interest. While Whan doesn't want to talk in specifics, he said "a couple of tournaments that have left," such as the one in Toledo, are returning to the schedule in 2012 and "you'll definitely hear about a couple of new ones."

And that is good news for the players.

"Being an American, I'd love to play here more," said veteran Angela Stanford of Fort Worth, Texas. "I think we're missing out on a couple of markets in this country. It's unfortunate because I think a lot of people would benefit, not just the players. Communities all over the country would enjoy having us and their charities would be helped."

When she took over as commissioner in 2005, Bivens impressed officials with her business model, but her demanding style turned off sponsors, including the original operators of the ShopRite LPGA Classic, who eventually pulled out. Her insistence that international players speak English was a public-relations disaster.

"She took three or four years to destroy it and now it has to be built back up," said Herb Lotman, co-founder of the McDonald's LPGA Championship who is an adviser to Whan.

Whan took command in January 2010, five months after Bivens resigned. He went on to reduce the sanctioning costs that tournament operators must pay to the LPGA, an issue that "consistently came up" when he spoke to them, Whan said.

The emergence of headline players from the United States helps grow the LPGA's fan base. Cristie Kerr, the reigning LPGA champion, spent a few weeks as No. 1 in the world in 2010. Michelle Wie seemingly has been around forever but just turned 21 in October. Stacy Lewis vaulted to star status with her win at this year's Kraft Nabisco, the season's first major.

Whan isn't anxious to anoint a face for the LPGA Tour, noting that fans in different countries would give different answers. Among U.S. players, he mentioned "a lot of players who can really take off" such as Wie, Kerr, Lewis, Paula Creamer, and Morgan Pressel.

Kerr, who is ranked fourth in the world this week, will be at Seaview Resort in Galloway Township along with the rest of the world's top five - Yani Tseng, Suzann Pettersen, Jiyai Shin, and Na Yeon Choi. They'll be joined by Wie, Lewis, Creamer, Pressel, Stanford, Hall of Famers Juli Inkster and Karrie Webb, and defending champion Ai Miyazato.

Two majors are coming up - the Wegman's LPGA in Pittsford, N.Y., and the U.S. Women's Open at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, Colo. Unfortunately, there is an idle week between the two but observers are optimistic that Whan can fill in those gaps and help the tour flourish.

"Mike is working hard," Lotman said. "He's a good young man. Time will be a wonderful healer, and in a couple of years he'll have this thing running in the right direction."

 


Contact staff writer Joe Juliano at 215-854-4494 or jjuliano@phillynews.com.