LPGA announces healthy schedule of 32 events in 2014
By Ron Sirak
NAPLES, Fla. -- Legend has it that when a newspaper prematurely published his obituary, the humorist Mark Twain responded by saying, "Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated." The LPGA knows all about that.
The tour, which will play its 65th season in 2014, has been portrayed by many as on the ropes frequently since it was launched in 1950. But the truth is that the LPGA is not only a survivor, but frequently thrives.
And the truth is that the LPGA, despite the naysayers and their predictions of doom, is the oldest and most successful women's professional sports organization in the world.
Yes, there have been ebbs and flows. There was the low point of 24 tournaments in 1972 and then the expansion that began with Nancy Lopez's rookie year in 1978 and peaked at 42 tournaments in the late 1990s.
And based on the news of the 2014 schedule presented Friday by commissioner Mike Whan at the season-ending CME Group Titleholders, the tour is on another upswing.
After bottoming out in 2011 at 23 events following the perfect storm of Carolyn Bivens and the Great Recession, the LPGA will play 32 official events next year, plus the International Crown.
During that dismal 2011 season, when the Scottish player Janice Moodie told me, "I now have a part-time job," Whan also told me he needed to get to 30 tournaments to eliminate the seemingly endless off-weeks and get the exposure to grow.
When I heard those words, I thought it would take him the rest of the decade to get there. He did better than 30 and we are not even halfway to 2020.
Just as importantly, Whan said the Symetra Tour, the developmental circuit that had 15 events this year, would have more than 20 when the schedule is announced in January.
While there is still some work to be done -- getting on network TV is a goal for Whan and a couple more domestic events wouldn't be a bad idea -- the news Friday was in line with the logo used on the stage where it was announced: UP.
Next year's schedule will have 23 full-field events, nine limited field events (all abroad) and the International Crown, which will have four-player teams from eight nations: Australia, Japan, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Taiwan, Thailand and the United States competing at Caves Valley in Maryland.
The comparisons between next year to even this year -- let alone 2011 -- are startling. The schedule goes from 28 events to 32; the prize money from $48.8 million to $56.3 million; Televised events from 27 to 32.
Perhaps most importantly, in 2010, 63 percent of the TV hours for the LPGA were on delayed tape. Next year, more than 90 percent will be live. In my opinion, the single biggest thing the LPGA needs to grow is better TV exposure, and thankfully, Golf Channel seems to be figuring that out.
When I talked with Whan in 2011 he said he was "embarrassed" that the tour had three consecutive off weeks in April. It's difficult to build momentum with your fan base that way.
Next year, there are two weeks off between the season-opening Pure Silk Bahamas Classic and the ISPS Handa Women's Australian Open; and again two dark weeks between the HSBC Women's Champions in Singapore and the first domestic event, the Founders Cup in Phoenix, March 20-23.
After that there are no consecutive off weeks the rest of the season, which ends Nov. 20-23 at the Titleholders back here in Naples.
The first major will be the Kraft Nabisco Championship in Rancho Mirage, Calif., April 3-6. The contract with Kraft Nabisco expires in 2014 and that will be interesting to watch.
Twice in 2014 an LPGA major will be paired with a men's major. On June 19-22, the U.S. Women's Open will follow the U.S. Open on Pinehurst No. 2 in North Carolina.
The Ricoh Women's British Open will be at Royal Birkdale July 10-13, the week before the men play the British Open at nearby Royal Liverpool. Having majors adjacent to the men -- both chronological and physically -- should help increase the media presence.
The Wegman's LPGA Championship was moved from early June to Aug. 14-17 to create better spacing of the majors and will relocate to Monroe CC in Pittsford, N.Y., a significant venue upgrade.
The fifth and final major, the Evian Championship, which was shortened to 54 holes by rain in its debut this year, will be Sept. 11-14 in Evian-les-Bains, France.
Whan, who took over in 2010 with a miserable hand dealt to him by Bivens, has to be given high marks for this schedule. Fueled by a conga line of empty diet soda cans, his infectious energy has translated into partners.
Also sharing in the credit is chief marketing officer Jon Podany, Whan's college roommate at Miami of Ohio, who left the PGA Tour when the LPGA was at its lowest point. Now that's a loyal friend.
Yes, there will be those who will find the dark cloud in this silver lining -- when it comes to the LPGA there always are. But the bottom line is this: Mike Whan has a good product, the economy is rebounding and the salesman is selling. All is good.