LPGA’s biggest problem is scoring barrier, not language barrier

In 2011, Yani Tseng was the only player on the LPGA tour with a scoring average below 70.
Harry How / Getty Images

In 2008, Carolyn Bivens, then LPGA commissioner, issued an ultimatum to the 121 international players with LPGA cards: Speak English, or else. It was a knee-jerk reaction to the perceived problem of too many foreigners on tour, in particular South Koreans, and their inability to interact with U.S. fans and media. Under the proposed mandate — it was quickly rescinded after it met with a maelstrom of criticism — players failing oral evaluations beginning in 2009 would have faced suspensions. Bivens was hoping to spur interest in her tour, but she missed the point: The problem with the LPGA isn’t that players can’t speak English — it’s that the players’ scores aren’t speaking for them.

In 2011, one player on the LPGA had a scoring average below 70 (Yani Tseng, 69.66), and 78 players failed to notch a scoring average below 73. Compare that to the men’s side, where 19 players cracked 70, led by Luke Donald at a sizzling 68.86, and not a single player had a scoring average above 73. These statistics aren’t a knock on the women — believe me, they’ve got serious game — but rather on the setups they play.

In a world filled by tweeters with short attention spans and newspapers short on column space, LPGA scoreboards should bleed red to generate more fan interest; instead, the ladies’ tour is applying a tourniquet with long, taxing course setups. PGA Tour setups average about 7,400 yards, while the women play courses around 6,500. Here’s the problem: The biggest hitter on the LPGA last year was Tseng, who averaged 269.2 yards, almost 50 yards behind the men’s top bomber, J.B. Holmes. (Indeed, Tseng’s average distance would have ranked dead last on the PGA Tour.) If you take the 50-yard differential between Tseng and Holmes multiplied by the 36 full shots generally struck during the course of play, you get a better idea of the yardage that’s appropriate for the LPGA — somewhere in the 6,000-yard range.

Shorter setups would lead to lower scores, and as far I’m concerned, the lower the better. If the ladies outgunned the men, fans would have no choice but to marvel at the talents of women shooting in the low 60s. Such numbers would be in sharp contrast to the opening event of the 2012 LPGA season, the Australian Open, where only six sub-70 scores were posted all week.

In early 2010, I noticed easier course setups on the PGA Tour relative to previous seasons. I asked a Tour official if this was intentional, if the Tour was trying to draw attention to the talents of its players and away from some of the tawdry storylines casting a shadow on the game that year. He smiled. That same year two players went on to break 60, three shot 60, and another four carded 61s. I remember almost every week in the studio we had a “59 watch.”

The LPGA could stir up similar excitement with more playable setups, and its players could come to be identified with the same kind of eye-popping scores that we now associate with Paul Goydos and Stuart Appleby. It’s a simple formula to grasp, no matter what language you speak: More birdies = more buzz.

This article first appeared in the May 2012 issue of Golf Magazine. The May issue is on newsstands and the tablet version is available for free for magazine subscribers on iPad, Kindle Fire, Nook Tablet, Nook Color and Samsung Galaxy Tab. Learn more