For an awful lot of players, the LPGA season ends this week at the Navistar Classic on the RTJ Golf Trail Capitol Hill course in Prattville, Ala. This is the last full-field event of the year, and it brings the year to a close for those not ranked high enough for the final stretch -- played primarily in Asia limited-field events -- to a painful campaign in which the LPGA played its thinnest schedule since 1971 and competed for its lowest total purse in a decade.
The abrupt cancellation this week of the Imperial Springs LPGA in China cut to 23 the number of events on this year's LPGA schedule and one of those, the RR Donnelley Founders Cup, paid out no prize money. Only 11 of the tournaments had fields of 144 or more and total prize money fell to $40.5 million dollars.
Mike Whan is trying to get the LPGA out of a deep hole. (Photo: Getty Images)
The last time the LPGA played as few as 23 tournaments was in 1971 when the schedule had 21 events. In 2001, when the tour had a 40-tournament schedule, the total purse was $43.5 million. In fact, the tour founded in 1950 has played fewer than 23 tournaments in a season only twice since 1955 -- 1970 also had 21 events.
The LPGA first hit the 40-tournament mark in 1980, a figure it matched in 1981, and had a run of six consecutive seasons with at least 40 tournaments beginning in 1996. But the defection of some long-time sponsors when licensing and TV fees for tournament owners were raised under commissioner Caroline Bivens was the beginning of a perfect storm of bad events for the LPGA.
In 2008, right as the global recession was taking hold, the tour lost one of its greatest players ever -- and one of its most marketable -- when Annika Sorenstam announced her retirement at the age of 37. Then, in 2010, Sorenstam's replacement as the dominant player on tour, Lorena Ochoa, stepped away from the game at the age of 28.
Those four events -- the increased cost of running a tournament, the loss of Sorenstam and then Ochoa, as well as the impact of the collapse of the worldwide economy -- left Mike Whan, who took over as commissioner last year, in a deep hole to climb out of. While there are whispers of good news concerning the 2012 schedule, Whan admits that 30 is the golden number to make the LPGA business model work. If Whan can get there by 2014, it should be considered a success.
The cancellation of the China event was a further indication that the places in the world eager to spend on golf right now -- Asia and the Middle East -- bring with them a complication: politics. Imperial Springs was to be played in early August but was postponed until Sept. 29-Oct. 2 "to allow the title sponsor and tournament organizers more time for proper permitting," according to an LPGA statement.
But Monday night the tour was told the permits still did not exist. "Blindsided by the news, the LPGA has exhausted all possibilities to carry on with the event as scheduled," the LPGA said Tuesday. "Players were notified today at a previously scheduled players' meeting held at the site of the Navistar LPGA Classic."
According to sources familiar with the situation, the LPGA had a four-year contract with the sponsors of the China tournament who, according to the sources, had deposited money in the bank to make the event happen. But golf is a tricky political problem for Chinese leaders.
Officially, the government is opposed to golf and has a moratorium on course construction because of sensitive issues involving the country's limited farm land as well as questions of water use, complicated by a drought this year.
But unofficially, the government sees the economic potential of developing a tourist economy for China of which golf could be a key component. Many in China want to see Hainan Island off the southern coast, where the LPGA played one year, developed as the Hawaii of China with golf a key component to drawing foreigners to spend their money.
But using a professional golf tournament as a springboard for an enhanced tourist economy was also the case in Bahrain, the Persian Gulf state that hosted its first men's European Tour event this year, the Volvo Golf Championship. But in the wake of political turmoil that began very soon after this year's event in January, the tournament, at least in Bahrain, was placed on hiatus for a year.
After this week's event in Alabama, a handful of LPGA members compete in the Solheim Cup and then a fortunate few dozen head to Korea, Malaysia, Taiwan, Japan and Mexico before ending the season with the 66-player CME Titleholders Nov. 17-20 in Orlando.
But for most LPGA members, after Navistar this week there will be no events to play until the tour gets back to the United States, most likely next March -- a six-month break. All would agree -- players, tour officials and fans -- it is an unwanted vacation.
-- Ron Sirak
Follow on Twitter: @ronsirak