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Ladies of the Links
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Lexi Thompson stares down a putt at the 69th U.S. Women’s Open, held this summer at Pinehurst No. 2.
Michelle Wie’s major breakthrough in 2014 is only one reason for the resurgence of the LPGA tour

There’s something up with the Ladies Professional Golf Association.

That’s “up” as in upturn, uptick, or more appropriately, upswing. More people are tuning in to the ladies of the LPGA, they have more tournaments on their schedule, they are playing for more money and they have established themselves as an international tour.

The LPGA has dug themselves out of the deep bunker of the economic downturn and slashed out of the rough of obscurity.
No, they don’t compare to the PGA Tour. They don’t have Tiger Woods, they don’t have a billion dollars in television money, they aren’t playing for nearly $300 million in purses annually and their television ratings remain miniscule by comparison.

That said, there’s an undeniable buzz about the tour. Young American players, principally Michelle Wie and Lexi Thompson, have taken center stage. Wie, the six-foot-one superstar once thought to have Tiger-like potential for the LPGA when she was a teenager, finally broke through this summer to win her first major, the Women’s U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2. Thompson, America’s latest teen phenom, won the Kraft Nabisco Championship (the old Dinah Shore) in April. Jessica Korda, the 21-year-old daughter of former championship tennis player Petr Korda, had won twice this season through the end of the summer. Stacy Lewis, the best U.S. player over the last four years, has been winning regularly.

Align those stars with players such as Korean superstar Inbee Park, perky and precocious New Zealand teen Lydia Ko, emerging Spanish talent Azahara Muñoz, powerful Norwegian player Suzann Pettersen and still dangerous veterans Julie Inkster, Stacy Lewis, Paula Creamer and Karrie Webb, and you see the promise of the LPGA.

It gets better. The LPGA and the PGA of America recently announced a partnership that will have the PGA conduct the Women’s PGA Championship next season with the sponsorship of KPMG, offering the biggest purse in the history of the women’s game, $3.5 million, and an international women’s business summit surrounding the major tournament at the historic Westchester Country Club in suburban New York City.

LPGA commissioner Mike Whan is beaming, though far from smug. When he took over in 2010, the LPGA was in disarray. Tournaments had dropped from 30 a season to 23. Prize money had dipped to barely more than $40 million. The previous commissioner, Carolyn Bivens, had left behind a trail of suspicion and frustration among the players and sponsors, and a player rebellion forced her ouster.

“Five years ago we were struggling with credibility, we were struggling with leadership,” says Inkster, who at 54 is still out there competing against the teens and 20s of the tour. “I hate to say it, but there probably wasn’t enough trust between the players, the sponsors and the commissioner.  No one knew what was going on. The board made a change and I was on the hiring committee that hired Mike. The first thing that stood out about Mike is that he’s very outgoing, honest and up front. That’s what we needed for the players and sponsors, to know where everybody stands, to get everybody on the same page.”

To get to where the LPGA is today, it was Whan’s mission to put sponsors first, to get the players to buy into it, and to make sure the players could feel free to be who they are. It was a game plan born of a successful career in business ­­that included a vice presidency of Wilson Sporting Goods, vice president of marketing for TaylorMade Golf and his last posting as president and CEO of Mission-Itech Hockey.

Under his leadership the schedule has expanded to 33 tournaments, prize money is up to $56 million and players who once were worried about the viability of their tour are now relishing its newfound visibility.

After repairing the badly damaged home-office culture and reestablishing close relations with sponsors while rounding up others, Whan and his team, which includes former PGA Tour executive Jon Podany, came up with a catch-phrase for the tour: “See Why We Are Different Out Here.”

How so? “Different than what you probably expect if you go to another sporting event or another golf tournament, for that matter,” says Whan. “I did a radio show driving from the Grand Rapids tournament and the DJ said ‘I can’t believe how interactive the players are with the fans. If you yell at somebody they yell back at you, if you ask them a question they answer it.’ I said that seems kind of basic and he said ‘Yeah, but these days in the sports world you don’t get that.’ ”
The LPGA is different because it doesn’t have a choice. The PGA Tour is the 800-pound gorilla of the golf world. It has mined corporate America, finding the mother lode in every shaft. Its TV ratings, driven by nearly two decades of Woods, have yielded unimaginable wealth.

“I don’t know if we have to be different [than the PGA Tour], but we don’t have a choice—we are,” says Whan. “We didn’t set down and say how are we going to be different . . . I think the same thing is true of our title partners. Having only been a sponsor before I became commissioner, I’ve always said I have zero experience to be a commissioner of a sport, but I do know what it is like to write a big check. Generally speaking you write a big check and there’s a contract, you get your brand somewhere, you get your seats. At the LPGA we build our events around the title partners. That slogan comes out of hundreds and thousands of letters and e-mails every week that tell us just that.”

Stacy Lewis has weathered the hard times of the past half-decade with a major championship game and a dedication to the success of her tour. She’s buying into Whan’s mantra and at 29 she’s sounding like a commissioner of the future, at least when she’s done winning 20 or 30 more tournaments.

“I think on and off the course it’s a breakout year,” Lewis said at the LPGA Championship in Rochester this August. “You look at all the Americans having played well. That’s certainly helped the momentum, but then you look at the sponsors and the partners we’ve signed with our tour, and increasing events, increasing purses, giving more girls an opportunity to play….We’re heading on the right track.”

The LPGA’s business, sporting and social model has even caught the eye of the PGA of America. The organization of America’s teaching professionals, which sponsors two of the major events of the game—the PGA Championship and the Ryder Cup—has now signed up to make the Women’s PGA Championship an incrementally bigger event.

“Part of our platform in terms of growing the game is diversity in the game, accessibility, bringing more groups into the game. One of the critical groups is women,” says Pete Bevacqua, CEO of the PGA. “We realized we hadn’t done anything major at the national and international level in regard to the women’s side of the game, and here we are, soon to be a 100-year-old organization. So it was a decision that we ought to do something very big, very significant, very symbolic for the women’s game. It started with a phone call between Mike Whan and me, just tossing ideas out there what we could do together. Quickly, that moved to why don’t we join efforts on a major championship. The timing was right for us, it was right for them with the LPGA Championship.”

It just so happened that KPMG, the huge tax advisory firm that has Phil Mickelson as an endorser, latched onto the women’s championship. NBC, which broadcasts the Ryder Cup, had been discussing with the PGA about broadcasting a women’s event. And it will be a live broadcast, rare for women’s golf.  

“The first company we took this to, KPMG, it just really resonated with them, and they were on board,” says Bevacqua. “And the fourth interested party, which made this easier, was NBC. We had recently completed our longterm broadcast rights with NBC for the Ryder Cup. Sitting around the table with KPMG, NBC, LPGA and us, it was four very motivated, aligned, like-minded entities that thought it would be great for golf and great for the LPGA. We all thought it was important to differentiate it from an LPGA weekly event. To truly look and feel and solidify itself as a major. It needed to look like and feel as much like PGA Championship.”

The PGA’s involvement, while economically a significant boost to the LPGA, is symbolically a gold star on the women’s scorecard. 

“I think it is absolutely a vote of confidence by the PGA of America in the women’s game, and absolutely a vote of confidence in what’s going on at the LPGA under the leadership of Mike,” says Bevacqua. “The LPGA Tour has become a great, family friendly, affordable family entertainment.”

Terry Duffy, executive chairman of the CME Group (Chicago Mercantile Exchange) bought into the engaging nature of the players and their commitment to their sponsors. The CME Group has provided another important element to the financial stability and sporting credibility of the LPGA Tour with involvement in sponsoring the season-ending Tour Championship and the Race to the CME Globe, a bonus based on season-long performance.

CME has been sponsoring a conference in Naples, Florida, since 2007. It was looking to conduct a pro-am event in conjunction with it. Duffy looked at the options.

“When you look at the PGA Tour, when you were looking to do what we were trying to do, the cost would have been 10 times for sure. And we might not have gotten the same results out of it,” says Duffy. “The PGA pro-ams, sometimes they aren’t the best experiences, sometimes they are the greatest experiences. But from what I heard, they can be hit or miss. That’s not something that is acceptable to me. I wanted something that was always going to be a hit. Working with the LPGA, I saw it was always a hit. So it was natural for me to continue on with the LPGA.

“I’m very focused on brand and credibility of brand. We are a 170-year-old firm and making sure our brand never gets damaged is a big part of what I do. To align ourselves with anybody, we do our due diligence. So the LPGA was a good place for us to be. We are involved with the National Hockey League with the Chicago Blackhawks, and they won two Stanley Cups since we’ve been associated with them—and their viewership is up about 50 percent. The NHL viewership grew about 35 percent, the only professional sport to grow during the crisis. Then you look at the LPGA up over 50 percent this year in viewership. We are quite pleased in the uptick in these two sports.”

Duffy has experienced why the LPGA is different, and Whan cites a stellar example. “We’re having dinner one night and he says, ‘Hey Mike, just so you know I love you, but we don’t sponsor you for that reason.’ ” He sent a message to one of the LPGA players that he had golfed with that day, and 10 seconds later his phone buzzed to life as the player texted a funny comeback. “That’s why I do it,” he said.

Central to the LPGA’s success as a business is the success of its stars, and its American stars. During the 2012 season all four major tournaments were won by Asian players and there was plenty of clubhouse and backroom talk about how, if the Americans weren’t center stage, the LPGA would be irrelevant in America. The LPGA could have been irrelevant altogether if Asian companies hadn’t stepped up to sponsor events during the downturn, and the South Korean television rights package is the tour’s most lucrative.

“At that time five years ago we were actually quite lucky that we were as global as we were, the Asian sponsors—Korea, Malaysia, Taiwan—they really kept our tour going,” says Cristie Kerr. “If those had gone away, who knows if we would have actually had a tour.”

Whan is careful and practical when addressing the nationality issue of the sport because so much of his income and potential lies around the globe.

“I’ve said this all year, that something special happens when the best players in the world are playing their best golf all at that same time,” says Whan. “For us, pretty much the best of the best are playing their best all the time. You get this incredible fireworks weekend and week out.

“It’s very important [to have American stars]. I’ve said this many times, in a perfect world we’ll have great superstars from each of our core countries. The reason I say that is because I want great TV ratings in Korea, I want great TV ratings in Japan, I want great TV ratings in Taiwan, I want great TV ratings in Australia and I want great TV ratings in America. If I get that, I get sponsorship opportunities in all those markets. We get fan-based opportunities in all those markets. So we need superstars in all parts of the world where young women can look up to them.”

The LPGA once had one of the brightest stars in the game, a player who attracted interest around the world. Nancy Lopez still does today. That self-made swing, that endearing smile, that engaging personality still makes her a draw. On the tour for senior players, the Legends Tour, she will command 90 percent of the gallery. She remains engaged with the LPGA and cares deeply about its fortunes, which seemed depleted five years ago, and now seem to be accruing interest. Much of that can be attributed to Wie’s stellar season where—five years after joining the tour—she won a major championship.

“I think five years ago everyone was asking where are the great American players,” says Lopez. “We were going through a transition era, we were searching for those players who would be carrying the baton to the next level. There were  players like Kathy Whitworth and Carol Mann, Sandra Palmer, Donna Caponi, they all worked so hard to bring attention to the LPGA Tour. Then the next generation came around, Beth Daniel and me and Patty Sheehan, Betsy King. As American players, we are always looking for the next generation to spring the LPGA forward.”

For this generation, the responsibility was hoisted on Wie. She had the most powerful game in women’s golf, could bomb it out with the men, and was a bright, flashy personality. She played in a few men’s tour events, tried to qualify for the men’s U.S. Open and it seemed that her future was limitless, and that she could carry the LPGA to new heights. She joined the LPGA Tour in 2009, and while winning a tournament in each of her first two seasons, she went winless for the next three before her breakout season in 2014.

“Michelle Wie winning the U.S. Open was fabulous, the way she played, the way she handled herself after all she has gone through on the LPGA Tour,” says Lopez. “Years ago, she was so young and trying to play on the men’s tour and on our tour, it probably wasn’t fair. She’s grown up a little bit, makes her own decisions and is enjoying the game.”

“This will sound like headquarters corporate speak. I’m pouring it all over everybody,” says Kraig Kann, the LPGA’s director of communications. “We can’t control who that next player is. You just never know. We live in a society of great impatience. Nobody will wait for somebody to become the next star. They want somebody to be that person yesterday. People get on tour at an early age and we won’t give them five years to grow into themselves. To me that’s very unfair for all sports.

“If you would have said three years ago that I would have to wait three years for Michelle Wie to win a tournament, I’d say you’re crazy. I think we always said if she was a stock, we were buying. We play 33 tournaments over 14 countries. We are a global tour with stars from around the world. Do we need the next Michelle Wie to be successful? I don’t think we do. It sure won’t hurt. We are an American-based tour and there’s no doubt we will take Michelle at her zenith over the next five to 10 years. But to put pressure on her to be that person would be unfair. I know she would like to be that person and it would help us. But we are in a really good spot right at the moment.”

So is Wie. She’s had to answer questions ad infinitum about her relative lack of success, based, it must be said, on the expectations of others. There were questions on how she was handled by her parents early on, what was perceived as grandstanding by playing in PGA Tour events. She’s had to deal with wrist injuries, and a finger injury forced her to miss some events in late summer. Through it all she has put on a public face of optimism while growing into her role as a professional golfer.

“I think our tour is getting good exposure, a lot of good story lines,” says Wie. “It really showcases some of the great personalities on tour. It’s really cool to see we are getting so much attention. Hopefully, I have a small part [bringing attention] to the tour. We are a work in progress. We went through some hard times. We are at a place now where we’ve added tournaments and commissioner Mike Whan has helped us a lot.”

So did her Women’s U.S. Open win. “It was really cool to win that and see my name engraved on the trophy,” says Wie. “It was surreal.”

There is an element of surrealism in Whan’s view of the LPGA’s future. He would love for the ladies to be competing at Augusta National, home of the Masters, and has had casual discussions with Billy Payne, the club’s chairman.

“I think dream is the right phrase,” says Whan. “If you don’t envision that kind of stuff you ought to get out of the business. I envision a lot of stuff that may or may not happen, but it’s not going to stop me from wondering and trying to figure out how. I don’t know if it’s going to be a women’s Masters, but will the top female golfers in the world some day tee it up at Augusta? Whether it’s for an International Crown, a Solheim Cup, a major or a regular event, I’ve got to believe there’s a day when that’s coming.”

Better days are here for the LPGA.

Jeff Williams is a contributing editor of Cigar Aficionado.