July 12, 2009

Learning A Lesson From Bivens' years

Common sense from a new Commisioner will go a long way in solving the LPGA's problems

Bill Fields, Senior Editor of Golf World magazine

Bill Fields, Senior Editor of Golf World magazine

Beautiful day. Big gallery. Birdie putt -- a 20-footer -- on the 72nd hole by Eun-Hee Ji to win the 64th U.S. Women's Open by a shot over Candie Kung. About 90 minutes before the dramatic conclusion, Paula Creamer, still lacking a major win, was doing her Phil Mickelson thing, signing autographs for everybody, including a family of four dressed in her signature pink. Jean Reynolds, a charming Georgian not much taller than her driver, didn't win either, but did underdogs everywhere proud. The only visible shadows at Saucon Valley CC, in fact, were the ones cast by the gorgeous property's many mature trees.

As sunny as things were, the impending departure of Carolyn Bivens as LPGA commissioner provided a mostly unspoken context of uncertainty during the top event in women's golf. Most players deferred comment about Bivens' exit and the stormy four years that preceeded it. Veteran Juli Inkster was an exception, speaking candidly after her final round from the perspective of an LPGA board member who spent most nights during the Open on conference calls about the tour's future. "We've got a lot of great players who can play golf," Inkster told reporters. "We need you guys to start writing about our golf instead of all this other crap that's going on. We're going to be fine."

The prognosis for the short-term health of the LPGA isn't necessarily as good as Inkster's optimistic hopes because the Bivens era will take time to get over. Some of the damage, because of a confluence of circumstances, would have occurred on anyone's watch. But other difficulties were -- to use a phrase from another sport -- unforced errors. Too often Bivens wielded a hammer when a scalpel would have worked, no more spectacularly than early in her tenure when the LPGA changed its rules to require publications to sign over rights to their photographs shot at tour events. A media boycott ensued, just when a new wave of appealing young players was drawing attention to the tour for the right reasons.

In two decades at the helm, former PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman rubbed many the wrong way. "I never in my wildest dreams thought being commissioner would win me a popularity contest," he said a few years ago, reflecting on his tenure. "It was about doing the right thing for the people that you're trying to build things for."

A commissioner doesn't have to be loved, but he or she must be respected. Beman's shrewd business mind and his often brusque style co-existed with a golf soul that Bivens never showed she possesses. As Beman -- often with opposition, even from his stars -- went about modernizing and upgrading his tour the way Bivens tried to transform the LPGA, his grounding in the game was hugely important. It didn't hurt, either, that he was just plain smart.

Bivens worked hard, on admirable goals such as pensions and health care for her players. "I think Carolyn got a bum rap right away because she's a woman in a man's world," Inkster said. "There's no doubt. In golf, even though you think it's a really big community, it's a small community. And she went in there [saying], 'This is the way we're going to do it,' instead of maybe taking a little softer approach."

Even when Bivens' instinct was correct -- that a mushrooming number of non-English speaking players presented a real marketing challenge in the United States for the tour -- it was negated by a proposed heavy-handed mandate that drew scorn even from those sympathetic to the problem.

Acting commissioner Marsha Evans and whomever is selected to ultimately lead the organization face difficult tasks. The schedule, which has lost seven events since 2008, has to be stabilized with particular emphasis on landing events in smaller American cities where women's golf can be a big deal. Sponsors, former or potential ones, have to be given the kind of attention Creamer was giving to her pink-clad fans. As is the Champions Tour, the LPGA is a niche sport. To re-establish itself when companies are reeling and some are hesitant to sponsor golf tournaments, the most approachable athletes in sports need to make sure they stay that way.

The LPGA's future depends on a lot of things, but talented players the public is intrigued by, and wants to root for, are a lot more important than slogans or branding. Whether the household name turns out to be Michelle Wie or someone else, the LPGA needs one. Regardless of what is going on inside the ropes, some common sense in the corner office will go a long way.