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LPGA Follows The Money East

February 17, 2008

As Deep Throat whispers to the Bob Woodward character in "All the President's Men," "Follow the money." That's what the LPGA Tour is doing, and the money leads to Asia. As with any expansion of a business, there will be winners and losers. In this case second-tier players get squeezed while the overall product is likely to emerge stronger.

After this week's Fields Open in Hawaii, the tour heads to Singapore for the HSBC Champions. This first-year event was born after HSBC watched in horror last year as the top nine seeds in the match-play event it sponsored outside New York City failed to make it to the weekend. First order of business: scrap match play. Second order of business: take the event east, where women's golf, and economies, are hot.

"The LPGA landscape and golfing calendar have changed enormously over the last few years, and as a sponsor of golf worldwide, the opportunity to create a women's HSBC Champions tournament -- and build on the success we've had with the men's HSBC Champions event -- was one we had to explore," HSBC spokesman Giles Morgan told Golf World via e-mail. "We felt we had to capitalize on the impact the men's event in Shanghai has had and take advantage of another exciting opportunity to develop the game further in Asia."

Beginning next year, the plan is to start the season with two events in Hawaii followed by Singapore and Thailand. This October the tour returns to Hawaii for an event at the Kapalua Resort that serves as a stopover for events in Korea and Japan. Multiple sources tell Golf World the current off week after Kapalua will be filled by the first event in China sanctioned by a U.S.-based tour.

"We have said in the past the LPGA has its eye on China, India and the Emirates as tournament sites," said Chris Higgs, the tour's chief operations officer, in neither confirming nor denying plans for China. As for the HSBC stop in Singapore, Higgs said, "This is a continuation of our strategy to extend our Asia presence. Now we will have a segment of the tour in Asia in the fall and spring."

While the LPGA expands its visibility in Asia (there are 66 players from six Asian nations on tour), it risks lessening its U.S. media coverage because of the time difference and distance to travel. "You have to ask if it's an optimum time to be somewhere else," Higgs said. "With college basketball in the spring and football in the fall, it seems sensible to be elsewhere."

The losers are the rank-and-file on tour. The events in Singapore, Korea, Japan and Thailand (and presumably China) are no-cut events with a maximum of 78 players, many of whom won't be LPGA members. One could argue smaller fields are a good move. Although the 144th player in a PGA Tour event field has a realistic chance of winning, that is not the case on the LPGA. Those left behind could play the Duramed Futures Tour, purchased last year by the LPGA.

As in any new venture, there is always a fly in the ointment. The contract with the Fields Open expires this year and sources say a new sponsor and new venue likely will be needed. But for now, Hawaii is the gateway to Asia in both the spring and fall for the LPGA. And Asia is where you end up when you follow the money.