Word is the LPGA will soon announce a new, limited-field event in China to be tacked onto the schedule this fall. That means two of the first four events and four of the last five on the 2008 slate will be played outside the U.S., making it difficult for fans and just as important, U.S. businesses to remain connected to the tour.
When Carolyn Bivens became commissioner in September 2005, one of her mandates was to add full-field domestic events. She has added eight U.S. tournaments (six full-field), while bringing in three foreign events (none full-field), but as many as four domestic events could disappear in '09. The players are getting anxious, especially as negotiations for new TV deals begin.
True, the economy has changed since Bivens took over. With the declining dollar it's easier for a foreign sponsor to put up a large purse, but the cost of broadcasting overseas events in the U.S. is hard to justify, and that means the U.S.-based tour is in danger of falling off the radar for its fan base. Why not wait for an economic turnaround, then sell the LPGA's strengths at home: accessible athletes, year-round charitable impact and one of the best values in sports marketing? These go over well in small- to medium-sized cities where the tour can build a long-term foundation. Frequent-flier miles aren't all they're cracked up to be, but steady, solid growth is.
It's time for Lorena Ochoa to be mentioned among the likes of Tiger Woods, Tom Brady and Roger Federer. She has dominated the tour for the past 2 1/2; seasons, collecting 17; victories, two majors, two player-of-the-year trophies and a gaping lead in the world ranking. At 26 she's only one point shy of qualifying for the World Golf Hall of Fame five years before she is eligible for induction.
Go see her play in person while you still can. She says she'll pare back her schedule to focus on the majors. She has also said that competitive golf is not her long-term priority. She wants a family and her philanthropic work with children in Mexico to take center stage in her life. I don't know of a better role model, and I hope she sticks around, for the LPGA's sake and for sports in general.
LPGA veteran Dottie Pepper is an analyst for NBC and Golf Channel.