Sirak: LPGA needs change as new season starts
The LPGA season begins this week at the Honda LPGA Thailand and continues next week with the HSBC Women's Champions in Singapore. Both are illustrative of the obstacles the LPGA needs to overcome to get back on track as a thriving tour. That the American-based tour starts 12 hours removed from the American media market and will be shown in the United States on tape delay is a problem for fans trying to connect with the tour. That both tournaments are limited-field events (60 players) is a problem for LPGA members not in the top 40 or 50 in the Rolex Rankings. Those second-tier players are going to be driven from professional golf because there are not enough opportunities to make money.
And then there is what might be the biggest problem in terms of building up energy for any storylines that might emerge. After the Singapore event ends Feb. 27, the LPGA does not have a tournament in 11 of the next 20 weeks. In that stretch, there is only one segment in which there are three consecutive tournaments and one of those is the RR Donnelley Founders Cup, in which no prize money is going to be paid to players but rather be directed to charities.
The LPGA needs more than its stars, like Michelle Wie, having success.
Commissioner Mike Whan is caught in a box the sides of which were created by his predecessor, Caroyln Bivens, and the top of which was nailed on by the recession. Even if the stars align properly and a compelling season unfolds, it is going to be difficult to sell that drama to the fans -- and potential sponsors -- with the erratic schedule. What if, for example, Michelle Wie wins her first major championship at the Kraft Nabisco and everyone is all jacked up that her enormous potential is going to break through. Well, she won't play again for three weeks and only twice in the next eight. Bummer.
There are 23 tournaments on the LPGA schedule this year plus the Solheim Cup and a super-limited field, unofficial event in Brazil. Let's assume the tour is going to stay in the 22-26 event range for the next few years. How can those other dates be filled in? My suggestion is to keep the tour as it exists now and add to it a 12-event Super Tour. Here's how I see that working:
__Funding:__ Each tournament will have a title sponsor, but how about also selling the naming rights to the tour, the way Virginia Slims ran women's tennis for awhile. How does the Donald Trump LPGA Women's Super Tour sound to you? I'm thinking it would sound good to him. It would maintain LPGA branding and it would get the kind of attention anything Trump does gets.
Format: Have it be a 12-tournament series that fills in the off-weeks on the LPGA schedule and culminates in a season-ending championship. Fields would be 60 players with top 40 coming from Rolex Rankings and with title sponsors being awarded 20 exemptions. (No problem getting Alexis Thompson into the field, or a box-office star who may have fallen in the Rolex rankings, or a player with local drawing power.) These would be no-cut events so you know the players who tee it up on Day 1 will be there on Day 4. Also, every player is guaranteed a paycheck. After 10 tournaments, the top 30 players on a points list advance to the semifinals. In the semis, the top 16 advance to the finals -- eight twosomes of stroke play for a payout similar to the now-defunct ADT Championship, which gave $1 million to the winner and $100,000 to second place.
TV: Folks in the industry I've talked to love the idea of having a star-driven tour. There are a lot of platforms available to TV syndication, including multiple cable possibilities with the recent acquisition of NBC Universal by Comcast, the owner of Golf Channel. I would also suggest a Saturday finish that doesn't conflict with the PGA Tour time slot (call it the Trump LPGA Championship Saturday) with the pro-am played on Sunday, a more convenient day for lots of people to be out of the office.
That's my story and I'm sticking to it. Keep the LPGA as it now exists with its truncated schedule and add a Super Tour centered around the stars. The Super Tour would open up more spots in the other events for second-tier players and provide them a chance to work their way up in the Rolex Rankings and get into the Super Tour. By the way, a player in the Super Tour can fall off the premier league and be relegated if she falls below 40 in the Rolex Rankings and is not offered a sponsors invitation. Hey, it just might work.
-- Ron Sirak
(Photo: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)