LPGA Commissioner Carolyn Bivens was undone by unflinching commitment to her vision for the tour

LPGA Commissioner Carolyn Bivens was undone by unflinching commitment to her vision for the tour

LPGA Tour Commissioner Carolyn Bivens
David Cannon/Getty Images

The Carolyn Bivens era is over. All that’s left now is to tidy up the details. What should have been a celebration of the first round of the U.S. Women’s Open instead turned into a daylong spectacle of rumors and prognostications, with various golf Web sites dueling to be the first to trumpet Bivens’s ouster.

The deathwatch began on July 5th when GOLF.com broke the news that a gaggle of the LPGA’s top players had gathered for dinner to air their grievances about Bivens. With the schedule contracting and a host of embittered corporate sponsors walking away, Bivens’s only chance to weather this stormy year was to have her most important constituents—the players—buy into her long-range vision. Once she lost the support of key tour members, it was all over but the shouting. Conflicted LPGA execs have not officially announced Bivens’s firing/resignation, but they’re not fooling anyone.

So what went wrong?

Bivens’s downfall was not her lack of a golf background (that didn’t help) or the global economic downturn (that really didn’t help) but something more elemental: hubris. One of her first acts after becoming Commish in 2005 was to clean house in the LPGA executive ranks. Surely there was some dead wood in the Daytona Beach offices but, as an outsider plucked from a media services agency, Bivens shouldn’t have been so dismissive of the accrued institutional knowledge. That set a pugilistic pattern in which Bivens often barreled ahead with her agenda, consequences be damned.

The noisiest example was last year’s ill-fated attempt to institute suspensions to foreign-born players who weren’t conversant in English. The backlash for these gaffes and others was more intense because she had burned up a lot of goodwill by being aloof to her players (and the dwindling ranks of reporters who regularly chronicle the tour). One LPGA veteran told me recently, “I think she intimidated a lot of players. She was so bulldoggish and intense. It wasn’t until this year that she seemed to try to get to know people a little better, but by then it was too late.”

Surely there is a little bit of inherent sexism in the many similar critiques of the LPGA’s first female commissioner. Tim Finchem is not exactly dripping in charm, but he is celebrated as a hard-edged businessman who gets results.

The bottom line with Bivens is that a commissioner’s most important job is to put money in the players’ pockets—as Finchem has—and losing sponsors and tournaments was Bivens’s original sin. Upon taking office the agenda she articulated was to raise purses, improve the players’ pension and retirement benefits and increase the tour’s TV presence. This required an entirely new business model for the mom-and-pop LPGA, forcing individual tournaments to take on more infrastructure costs and sponsors to kick down substantially more dollars.

Bivens came through on the TV front, lining up a long-term pact that makes Golf Channel the tour’s exclusive domestic cable partner, beginning next year. This will be the best part of her legacy and a huge boon for the LPGA, rescuing it from a mish-mash of different channels where its low priority resulted in bad time slots and D-list announcing crews. The large, affluent, golf-mad audience of the Golf Channel should have helped Bivens in negotiations with tournament sponsors. Her self-styled “Vision 2010” resulted in a number of expiring corporate contracts this year to cash in on the new TV contract. It was a good gambit until the economy imploded.

Bivens’s fatal flaw was that she stubbornly refused to back down in her demands of so many cash-strapped corporations, clinging to the belief that this was the last best chance to launch the LPGA into the big-time. Instead many companies have simply walked away, resulting in the loss of seven tournaments this year (so far).

There is already speculation about who will succeed Bivens in the short-term. Jan Stephenson has volunteered herself, but she has probably ruffled too many feathers through the years to get the nod. Dottie Pepper is an intriguing notion, but she shares more than a few personality traits with Bivens. Our choice is Judy Rankin, a knowledgeable, widely respected insider who is so kindly she bakes cookies for her ABC colleagues. Charlie Mechem remains the most beloved LPGA commissioner because of his avuncular manner, and Rankin is basically a female Mechem.

The biggest job of the next commissioner, interim or not, will be to charm and gently cajole sponsors who have ditched the tour or may be considering it. With the right concessions next year’s schedule can still be salvaged, but there is not a second to lose, which helps explain the uprising that ultimately cost Bivens her job.

The LPGA is so accustomed to being treated as a small-time outfit that it’s ironic that Bivens’s undoing was her relentless ambition. “She felt we had such a great product and that we deserved better,” says one player who remains a supporter. “She believed in us so much. Ultimately, that was her downfall.”