June 1, 2009

A Major Question Mark

McDonald's LPGA Championship preview

EIGHT IS ENOUGH: Tseng, winner of the 2008 ­McDonald's LPGA ­Championship, is one of eight players who have won the last nine women's majors.

EIGHT IS ENOUGH: Tseng, winner of the 2008 ­McDonald's LPGA ­Championship, is one of eight players who have won the last nine women's majors.

Assuming ownership of the LPGA Championship last year was a positive step for the tour. Its flagship event has the potential to generate significant revenue, as do the Solheim Cup and the ADT Championship, the other two properties the LPGA owns. But after this year's tournament, the McDonald's LPGA Championship will join the ADT in having neither a sponsor nor a venue for 2010. Of the many questions that will hang in the hot, humid Maryland air at Bulle Rock GC when the 55th LPGA Championship is contested June 11-14, perhaps the most fascinating, because of the economy, is where this event will be played next year and under what name.

The fifth and final trip to Bulle Rock also may begin to sort out some puzzling competitive questions in what has been a confusing season.

Why does it feel as if—even with 26 career victories, including two this year—Lorena Ochoa is not the dominating player we were expecting? Will Suzann Pettersen find the form she displayed in 2007 when she won five tour events, including the LPGA Championship? And is Paula Creamer, an eight-time winner at age 22, finally ready to win a major?

Among the kids, is Yani Tseng, the 20-year-old from Taiwan who won the McDonald's last year and the Corning Classic last month, the next big thing? Is 19-year-old Michelle Wie the player who was second at the SBS Open and T-3 at the ­Sybase Classic or the one who was T-67 in the Kraft Nabisco Championship? And why has Brittany Lincicome finished outside the top 60 in three of four starts since she won the Kraft?

Finally, is Cristie Kerr, with victories in each of the last six years, tying Ochoa for the longest active streak, the tour's most underrated player?

That's a lot of pondering, but a tour desperately in need of an exclamation point has found that a question mark is more appropriate. With expiring contracts in a difficult economy, the 2010 schedule will present Carolyn Bivens the greatest challenge any LPGA commissioner has faced. But Bivens has proven to be remarkably resilient. When three LPGA executives quit on the eve of the 2006 McDonald's, saying they lacked confidence in the first-year commissioner, some speculated Bivens was not long for the job. Not only is she still in power, her contract was extended for three years. While acknowledging the difficulties posed by the recession, Bivens remains ­optimistic.

"We feel good about our discussions with sponsors about the ­LPGA-owned events, but do not expect to announce anything soon," she told Golf World. "Like most sports organizations and tournaments, we're encountering longer sales periods due to the uncertainty surrounding the economy."

According to David Higdon, the tour's chief communications officer, where the LPGA Championship is played next year depends on the sponsor. The tour would like to host its major near New York because of the potential for selling corporate hospitality tents, but the Big Apple may not fit the business need of the new sponsor. "They'll come together at some point," said Higdon, "but right now, we're still pursuing."

According to sources familiar with the situation, there was a flirtation with Baltusrol GC in New Jersey. And there are some who would like the championship to return to the newly renovated DuPont CC in Wilmington, Del., where the LPGA Championship was played from 1994-2004. But the scenario with the most traction involves the Kingsmill Resort in Williamsburg, Va. If the contract for the Michelob Ultra Open is not renewed by InBev, the new owners of Anheuser-Busch, it would be a candidate for the major.

In its four years as host Bulle Rock has produced fascinating tournaments. The first two were won by Hall of Famers Se Ri Pak and ­Annika Sorenstam, and the last two by breakout performers Pettersen and Tseng. In fact, eight of the last nine women's majors have been won by first-time major winners, the lone exception being Ochoa, who won the 2008 Kraft Nabisco after taking the 2007 Ricoh Women's British Open.

And that raises perhaps the most important question going into this year's McDonald's: Are we witnessing parity or mediocrity? After a decade of dominance by Sorenstam, Pak, Karrie Webb and Juli Inkster, there is a greatness void waiting to be filled. That foursome won 16 of the 19 majors played from the 1998 ­McDonald's through the 2002 Women's British Open, including 11 of the 12 played in 2000-02.

The tour has greater depth right now, with several highly marketable players. What is needed is for one of them to take the reins when it matters most: the majors. Through her first seven years Sorenstam won only two majors—then ripped off eight in six years. Is one of the young players ready to do that? Perhaps the last McDonald's will be the first step toward answering that question.