HAVRE de GRACE, Md. — Carolyn Bivens, the LPGA commissioner, has taken a lot of heat over her handling of the future of the LPGA Championship. She took the event, which for years and years had a regular weekend spot on CBS and later NBC, off the networks and sold it to Golf Channel, giving the cable channel all four rounds. The event, the second-oldest of the four LPGA majors, had a super-stable tournament sponsor with McDonald’s. She orchestrated a parting of the ways with the fast-food chain. For the past five years, the event has been played on a big-time modern course, Bulle Rock. The event is not coming back here.
I think Bivens has made nothing but smart moves here. She’s irritated a lot of powerful people in women’s golf along the way, including some of the top executives at NBC Sports, which is not a smart thing to do when your tour is struggling, and the LPGA is struggling. But in the long run, Golf Channel is going to be the right home for many LPGA events, including its marquee championship. The channel is getting better, and it’s getting into more homes ever year.
Bivens would never say this publicly, but the LPGA can do better by recognizing that it’s not really part of the mainstream sporting culture, the way men’s golf has become. It never has been, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Why not try to sell women’s golf to people who really love golf? If something happens to the dynamic of the game — women’s golf develops its own Tiger Woods — the networks will come to you, checkbook in hand. In the meantime, and meantime could be forever, do business with people who want to do business with you.
As for McDonald’s: who needs it? If you’re not going to have cigarette manufacturers sponsor your events, why Mickey D’s? All over Bulle Rock there were people eating quarter-pounders with cheese and apple pies: 760 calories that you could wolf down in about six bites, and still feel hungry. Of course it’s delicious, but does pushing that food have anything to do with the message the LPGA is trying to sell? The one about youth and fitness and internationalism? No.
Sure, the McDonald’s chain and suppliers raised millions of dollars for some superb hacrities through the tournament, and no doubt improved lives and eased the pain of many cancer patients and others. But really, did these outfits need a a golf tournament to do this bit of good? No.
Next year’s LPGA Championship will not have a title sponsor. Some company will pay the bills, but it will be the LPGA’s marquee event and will share top billing with nobody. You want to elevate your major? Follow the men’s leads. Yeah, it’s easier said than done, but staying true to your values is the best sales tool of all.
As for Bulle Rock: It’s a really good and demanding golf course, but not a good spot for the LPGA Championship. For one thing, it’s near … nothing. I know a lot of modernists will cringe when reading this, but the marquee LPGA event should absolutely be played on a course where charm is one of the main ingredients, like on the old classic courses of Philadelphia or Minneapolis or Columbus. On courses where the walk is easy for spectators, where a lot of the action is right around the clubhouse, where pitch shots and chipping and good lag putting are as important as anything else.
The long ball is the men’s game. Women are hitting far longer than ever before, but is that making the women’s game more interesting for you? I loved watching Annika think her way around courses, and Patty Sheehan chip and putt and will her way to the Hall of Fame. Personality comes out much more in the little shots than in the big blasts. We want to see what these golfers are made of. There’s been too little of that over the years.
So, to recap one man’s opinion on where the LPGA Championship is now and where it’s going, or should:
* Finding a home on Golf Channel was a good move, but the quality of the broadcast must improve and the cable channel must reach WAY more golf-centrtic homes in the future if this move is going to pan out.
* Parting with McDonald’s will be a major improvement for this historic major, which should have no title sponsor (and won’t).
* Leaving rural Bulle Rock is a ncessary move, but the LPGA must find a permanent home on a charming old-line course with a gracious clubhouse at a club where the players and the spectators will feel special just for being there.
If you could bring back Mickey Wright, Nancy Lopez and Annika Sorenstam, that of course would help. There’s no sign that anything like that is about to happen. Still, if you do all of the above correctly, the crowning of a tour rookie with big-time talent, like Anna Nordqvist, will feel fresh and exciting and memorable.