What could very well be the most important decision in the 59-year history of the LPGA will be made by the middle of next month, according to sources close to the situation, when the embattled tour hires its ninth commissioner -- if you count acting commissioner Marty Evans. Whoever takes over will be walking into a hornets' next of problems left behind by ousted commissioner Carolyn Bivens and compounded by the worst economic conditions the tour has known since it was founded in 1950.
The criteria for the new commissioner, spelled out by the headhunting firm Spencer Stuart, greatly limits the pool of prospective candidates. According to a Spencer Stuart document entitled "Position and Candidate Specification: Ladies Professional Golf Association Commissioner," the "ideal experience" for the next commissioner would include "substantial business leadership experience in golf or a sports company," as well as "a passion for and understanding of golf and the relationships within the golf industry."
When the LPGA hired Bivens, it went outside the golf community -- she was on the launch team at USA Today and later ran a media time-buy company -- and that was seen as part of her problem. She was an outsider who made little or no effort to become an insider. As a result, when she tried to impose new fees on the tournament owners it created tensions that exploded into outright hostility when the economy turned sour.
So who fits the bill as golf insiders with business experience? The two names getting the most juice are Donna Orender (shown on the left alongside Amy Mickelson last week at the Samsung World Championship), president of the WNBA and a former VP with the PGA Tour who was involved in TV negotiations there, and Pete Bevacqua, the Chief Business Officer of the USGA who has helped direct a streamlining of the operation at golf's governing body. According to sources, both have been interviewed by Spencer Stuart and both have some important supporters backing their candidacies. Both also have roots in golf and strong business experience.
Bivens was the first female commissioner of the LPGA, and while it was felt having a woman was important when Bivens was hired, that is no longer a chief concern, according to several sources. Evans, a retired rear admiral with the U.S. Navy, told GolfDigest.com she was happy in her retirement and looks forward to returning to that life and has no interest in taking the job full-time.
The timetable the LPGA is working against is the Tour Championship in Houston Nov. 19-22. Ideally, the new commissioner would give a State of the Tour news conference on Nov. 18 and unveil the 2010 schedule. And that is going to be an extremely delicate task.
Earlier this week, the Michelob ULTRA Open at Kingsmill -- which had the third largest purse on tour -- said it was not coming back next year. As of now, only 17 events are under contract for 2010, down from 34 in 2008.
It could very well be that the next commissioner will oversee a transition to a very different business model -- clearly fewer tournaments, likely some smaller purses (several have already announced as much) and perhaps smaller fields -- something Spencer Stuart likely had in mind when it listed as one of the qualifications, "a willingness to make tough decisions."
-- Ron Sirak