October 29, 2008

Where In The World Is The LPGA?

As the LPGA confronts economic realities, expands deeper into to Asia and hears grumbling from the ranks, Ron Sirak wonders if the leadership knows where they're going

Helen Alfredsson got the royal treatment in Asia last week. Will the rest of the LPGA fare as well there?

Helen Alfredsson got the royal treatment in Asia last week. Will the rest of the LPGA fare as well there?

Quick, who won the LPGA tournament last week? Better yet, where was the LPGA tournament last week? Now answer this: Where is the LPGA this week?

If you answered: Helen Alfredsson, China and Korea you win. What do we have for our lucky contestant, Vanna? Why it's a lovely kimono to wear next week when the women's tour goes to Japan.

The LPGA is on its autumn Asia swing, raising this inevitable question: Is it good for the tour to spend nearly a month 12 times zones away from LPGA headquarters in Daytona Beach, Fla., and half a world away from American-based advertisers and fans?

Unlike the first three questions posed here this one is not so easy to answer. The impulse is to say no. What can be good about falling off the radar screen of the American media for nearly a month?

But the movers and shakers in Daytona Beach who have put together a schedule that next year will also include stops in Thailand and Singapore in March -- and who have an eye on Abu Dabai and India down the road -- make a pretty compelling point.

In the United States, where football is king, golf is pretty much an afterthought to sports fans in the fall anyway so why not follow the money and head overseas?

To bridge the gap from the Longs Drugs Challenge in California, which ended Oct. 12, to the ADT Championship in Florida, which begins Nov. 20, the LPGA makes stops in Hawaii, China, Korea, Japan and Mexico.

This globetrotting is the result of several truisms that reflect strength of the LPGA and some economic realities it faces. First off, the tour is global in nature with players from 26 nations other than the United States among its members.

Nearly four dozen of those members are from Korea and two -- Ai Miyazato and Momoko Ueda -- are among the most popular sports figures in Japan. In Shanshan Feng, a rookie who has finished in the top 10 in five of her last nine starts after missing the cut in nine of her first 10, China's first-ever LPGA member is an unqualified success.

Why not go to Asia and tap into the huge popularity of women's golf there? In Japan, for example, the women routinely gets better TV ratings than the men and throughout Asia LPGA players are treated like rock stars. Follow the money, baby, follow the money.

Besides, it is certainly true that the main thing on the minds of American sports fans this time of the year are matters pigskin:

Will Joe Paterno have his fifth Penn State team to go undefeated and not win the college national championship?

Are the Tennessee Titans really that good?

Think it's not difficult to pry eyes and minds away from football this time of the year? Just check out the TV ratings for the World Series, were you have to go back to when there were still day games to find numbers this low -- and in at least one case not even then.

Look, the reason the PGA Tour moved its Tour Championship from November to September was to get away from football, although to look at the ratings of this year's Tigerless Tour Championship they should have moved it to August -- or China.

So the answer to the overarching question as to why the LPGA should spend so much time competing in Asia seems to be simply this: Why not?

Especially given the current economy it is not at all clear the tour would find sponsors to run events in the United States. The grumbling that is starting to emerge, however, comes not from the tour's fans but from its members -- especially those lacking international star quality.

The Kapalua LPGA Classic, which uses Hawaii as the jumping off point for the Asian Swing, is the last full-field event of the year. Instead of the 134-player field Kapalua had, which was cut to 70, China had 63 players and Korea will have 70 -- both, like Japan next week, with no cut.

The increase in limited-field, overseas tournaments with not cut has significantly reduced the playing opportunities -- and paycheck opportunities -- for second-tier LPGA players.

One flip answer to this situation would simply be: Play better. The players might argue that an answer could be: Pay better. One way of addressing the matter is to drive up the purses on the Duramed Futures Tour, the developmental circuit purchased last year by the LPGA.

The leading money winner on the DFT this year was Vicky Hurst, who earned $93,107 and No. 5 was Jin Young Park, who banked $42,368 -- which certainly had to fall short of her expenses for the seasons.

That's a far cry from the Nationwide Tour, the men's minor leagues, where Brandon de Jonge topped the money list with $415,835 and Greg Chalmers was No. 5 with $313,930 -- extremely livable sums of money even after the significant expenses of life on the road are deducted.

One impact of the increase in limited-field overseas LPGA tournaments is that more and more players are looking for off-season jobs to tie them over from mid October to late March when the tour comes back to mainland United States.

Perhaps the real question here is not so much where the LPGA is playing but rather how many LPGA members are in the field. Will the existence of more events with fewer spots for American players serve as a disincentive for young girls learning the game?

Or will the increased emphasis on the top tier of players at the expense of the second tier push Americans to a higher level of competition by forcing them to play better in order to merely get into the field of tournaments?

The answer to that question will say a lot about the future of the LPGA.