LPGA Tour was thriving in Arizona

Tuesday March 31st, 2009
Kohjiro Kinno

The LPGA Tour finally reached the continental U.S. last week after a season opener in Hawaii and then a road trip through Thailand, Singapore and Mexico. The weather at the J Golf Phoenix LPGA International mirrored the general mood on tour: sunny, with occasional gusts of concern. "It's nice to be back home," said the hottest American player, Angela Stanford, but the good vibes transcend geography. So far this year the LPGA has been buoyed by a steady stream of good news, and the Phoenix event, at which Karrie Webb triumphed by three shots, was a case in point. Only two months ago the tournament was flailing for a sponsor and a host course, after Safeway terminated its longtime support and Superstition Mountain Golf Club was placed in receivership. J Golf, a division of the JoongAng Broadcasting Corporation (JBC), came on board as part of a blockbuster deal that secured the LPGA's Korean television rights beginning next year, and a credible venue was found in Papago Golf Course, a beloved muni with a picturesque setting at the base of some dramatic red-rock buttes.

"I don't have the vocabulary to express how important this tournament was," says commissioner Carolyn Bivens. "It was a major gut check for the LPGA. To have pulled this off bodes very well for the long-term success of the tournament and, I think, the tour as a whole."

"It was a pretty great save," says Morgan Pressel, "but we have to keep working at it. The frustrating thing is that the LPGA product is the best it's ever been, but the overall economy is so bad we're struggling to capitalize."

That's the perception, but the tour has been steadily landing deals. Last week the LPGA announced a three-year pact for a new official wireless phone company: VTech will buy TV ads on tournament telecasts and space on lpga.com. It's not a game-changer, but these days any new revenue stream is welcome. The players are also cashing in on their crossover appeal. Natalie Gulbis is currently one of the stars on NBC's Celebrity Apprentice. One of women's golf's liveliest personalities, Christina Kim, has secured a contract with Bloomsbury USA to write a diary of the 2009 season to be published next spring. (The book will be coauthored by this correspondent.) Last week second-year tour player and part-time model Anna Rawson was introduced as a new spokesperson for godaddy.com, the Internet domain registrar that has created a certain amount of buzz with racy advertising campaigns featuring Danica Patrick. Publicizing Rawson's abundant charms should help attract a few more eyeballs for the tour, but just as significant as the deal itself was the splashy press conference at Papago that trumpeted it. The LPGA has long had a policy precluding players from holding self-promoting pressers at tournament sites, but that rule was struck down by a reorganized communications department that has already proved to be nimbler and more big picture than its predecessors. Example B of such revamped thinking: a recently enacted policy credentialing lowly bloggers at tournament media centers.

It's nice of the LPGA to encourage the written word, but better TV exposure is the key to its growth. The most significant macrodevelopment so far this season was last month's announcement of a 10-year deal for Golf Channel to become the tour's exclusive domestic cable home beginning in 2010. Two of the three tournaments before Papago had no TV coverage in the U.S.: the Honda LPGA Thailand, at which Lorena Ochoa shot a rousing final-round 66 for a comeback victory; and the MasterCard Classic two weeks ago in Mexico City, which featured a bang-bang finish in which Ochoa, the national sweetheart, came up a shot short of Pat Hurst in front of raucous galleries. Considering that Mexico City is in the same time zone as Denver, Bivens concedes, "That was a missed opportunity for the tour." One that presumably will not be repeated in the future, since Golf Channel will be contractually obligated to televise at least five international events a year.

Some other recent newsbreaks have also helped shore up a schedule that contracted by six tournaments in 2009. This week's Kraft Nabisco Championship will be one of the highlights of the LPGA's year, but the momentum easily can be lost as the tour goes dormant for three of the ensuing four weeks. In 2010 one of those holes will be plugged by the Bell Micro LPGA, which this year was to be played during a busy stretch in October but will be pushed back six months, into next April. Bivens has drawn shrapnel in the past for imperious dealing with tournament sponsors, but it was Bell Micro that requested to move to the spring, saying it made better business sense. "In these challenging times we have to listen very carefully to our sponsors and help them any way we can," says Bivens.

September's Samsung Championship has been strengthened by the recent announcement of Torrey Pines as a venue for 2009 and possibly '10. "Anytime you can visit a really high-profile golf course, it does wonders for your schedule," says Stanford. "People who aren't necessarily LPGA fans will come that week because of Torrey, and once we get them there, I bet we'll turn them into LPGA fans for life."

The LPGA has long been fan-friendly. At Papago an autograph booth was set up behind the 18th green, and even the most high-profile players signed until their fingers were numb, repeatedly thanking fans for waiting in line. Throw in reasonable pricing — a one-day pass in Phoenix cost $16 — and it's no accident that attendance was up by 24% through the first four tournaments of this year. Michelle Wie's presence had given the LPGA more than a little box-office appeal. Last Saturday, Wie had dew-sweeping duty as the third time off, at 7:56 a.m., but about 300 fans turned up to follow her, and the Wie group was chaperoned by four armed Phoenix cops. Her effect is quantifiable in other ways: Wie's season debut at the SBS Open led to the second-most traffic on lpga.com for a nonmajor week, and the final round, during which she held the lead into the back nine, captured the fourth-largest audience ever for an LPGA round on Golf Channel. And yet, after a distant 57th-place finish, eight over par and 13 shots behind Webb, Wie left Phoenix third in the rookie-of-the-year race, 207 points behind Jiyai Shin.

"There are a lot of very exciting, very confident young players, and they've put a certain electricity in the air," says veteran Juli Inkster. "Add to that the Solheim Cup being played this year in the U.S., and there is a lot of intensity, even this early in the year."

To be sure, the LPGA faces numerous challenges going forward. A number of tournament sponsors for next year remain up in the air, and 2009's glitzy new season-ending Tour Championship has become imperiled because the title sponsor is, ahem, Stanford Financial. The game's best player, Ochoa, is a wonderful ambassador for the LPGA, but mainstream recognition has remained elusive, especially compared with the one-named ubiquity of the recently retired Annika. On Saturday morning the line to get a table at The Breakfast Club in Old Town Scottsdale stretched around the block, but Ochoa enjoyed a leisurely meal undisturbed, even though she offered a clue to her identity by way of the heavily logoed sweater she would later wear to the course.

Ochoa complemented the outfit with a sporty skirt, the first time anyone could remember her baring her gams at a tournament. After the third round her amused fiance, Andres Conesa, said, "She didn't think it was a big deal, but 30 people must have commented on it." Ochoa's new look is representative of the LPGA this minute: familiar, but a little bit perkier.

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