March 22, 2009

Now You See 'Em, Now You Don't

The LPGA's 2009 schedule is defined as much by the weeks when the tour is quiet as when there's actually an event

Whatever hopes the LPGA has of capitalizing on the starpower of Michelle Wie is tempered by the tour's inconsistent schedule.

Whatever hopes the LPGA has of capitalizing on the starpower of Michelle Wie is tempered by the tour's inconsistent schedule.

Remember the LPGA? Well, it's back. Not that it ever really went anywhere, but it has been wandering its way to the continental United States for so long it's easy to forget when it began. For the record: The 2009 tour commenced in Hawaii on Feb. 12, took a week off then made stops in Thailand and Singapore before pausing for another week and then visiting Mexico.

Now it alights in Phoenix, a stop that represents as much as anything the challenges the LPGA faces this year, in large part because of the economy. At a time when the tour traditionally shifts into high gear, the LPGA is caught somewhere between first and second.

This week's J Golf Phoenix LPGA International at Papago GC used to be the Phoenix LPGA International and before that was the Safeway International at Superstition Mountain. The fact this stop has had three names and two courses in a year says something about the obstacles facing the women's tour, but it also says something about its resiliency.

Even in the best of times, the LPGA has had to paddle as fast as it can to keep its head above water. Now, it seems, even when it breaks the surface there's a nasty wave waiting to slap the tour in the face.

The LPGA began the 2009 season down three events from last year -- Hawaii, South Carolina and Oklahoma. Early on it learned that the Ginn Open in Orlando, Fla., had been claimed by the real estate downturn. And just last week the Bell Micro LPGA Classic in Mobile, Ala., in October was moved to April of 2010, filling a hole in next spring's schedule but creating a new one this fall.

And then there is the question of the Stanford Financial Tour Championship. With the title sponsor under investigation for investment and securities fraud and the PGA Tour having already stripped the Stanford name from its Memphis event it seems unlikely the LPGA season-ending tournament will take place -- certainly not under the current sponsor.

All this makes for a very unsettling time for players and caddies. Mid-tier players especially may find more off weeks this year than they can afford. Several caddies, sizing up the situation, have bailed on the LPGA for the Nationwide Tour, where they at least know they will have tournaments to work and where they can hope to latch onto a rising young player who makes it to the big-dollar paydays on the PGA Tour.

Here's the reason the rank-and-file is concerned: in the first 28 weeks of the LPGA season there are only 11 full-field domestic events, and three of those are major championships. If you are, for example, No. 80 on the money list -- a spot at which you keep your card for next year -- here is your reality:

•: You play the SBS Open in Hawaii but you are not eligible to play in Thailand, which has 60 players, or Singapore, which has 78. That means you have four weeks between SBS and The MasterCard Classic in Mexico.

•: You play the J Golf Phoenix International but are not eligible for the Kraft Nabisco Championship, a major with about 110 in the field. That means you have one tournament -- the Corona Championship in Mexico – in the five-week stretch between Phoenix and the Michelob Ultra at Kingsmill in May.

•: You get three weeks in a row in Virginia, New Jersey and New York then are off a week, on two weeks and off a week. Now comes the stretch that has many players raising an eyebrow.

•: If you do not qualify for the U.S. Women's Open you can go from the end of the Jamie Farr Owners Corning Classic on July 5 to the start of the Safeway Classic Aug. 28 without a place to play -- seven dead weeks in the middle of summer. Not good for a professional golfer.

Here's how that stretch breaks down: U.S. Women's Open, off week, Evian Masters in France (90 players), Ricoh Women's British Open in England, off week, off week, Solheim Cup (24 players).

The good news is that the schedule ends with 15 consecutive weeks of play beginning with the Safeway International the last week of August. Well, at least that's that the way the schedule read when it was handed out. There have been some tweaks.

As mentioned previously, the Bell Micro has been moved from October 2009 to April 2010. The Stanford Financial is a huge question mark. And the China LPGA has to be considered somewhat of a question mark since it currently has neither a sponsor nor a venue.

Does this mean the LPGA is on the endangered species list? Absolutely not. Fifty-nine years on, it remains the oldest and most-successful women's professional sports organization in the world. But what it could mean is that the tour will morph into something different.

One possibility: Smaller-field tournaments. Maybe the Asia model is the one to follow -- 60 or 70 players and no cut. The tour could sell that idea to the rank-and-file players if the purses on the Duramed Future's Tour (which the LPGA owns) could grow to a reasonable level. Last season No. 5 on the Duramed money list won $42,000. Can't live on tour on that.

How can that be done? Perhaps take on a business partner with deep pockets. The PGA Tour, perhaps. Or a vertically integrated player in the game, like International Management Group, which has events outside the United States where it has designed the course, built the course, manages the course, manages the tournament played on the course, televises the tournament and the players it manages make up 70 percent of the field.

Yes, there are holes in this year's LPGA schedule. But there are holes pretty much everywhere you look in the world economy. The LPGA will emerge from the other side of this chaos the way it always emerges: On it's feet. But it might be wearing different clothing. Meanwhile, the tour has great fields this week at the J Golf LPGA International and next at the Kraft Nabisco Championship. Enjoy. Then take two weeks off.