LPGA Tour Championship: Microcosm of Year

By: Steve Habel

The past week has been a microcosm of the Ladies Professional Golf Association's recent history and provided a look into the things that make the tour's future hopeful and expectant.

The LPGA Tour Championship on the demanding Rees Jones-designed course at The Houstonian Country Club in Texas was a series of fits and starts because of rain and wet and foggy conditions. The season-ending tournament was eventually reduced to 54 holes and forced into a Monday finish.

The $1.5 million event was won by Anna Nordqvist of Sweden and Arizona State University with a final score of 13-under-par 205. The rookie captured her second tournament of the year thanks to a closing 7-under 65 that included eight birdies and a single bogey.

The race for LPGA Player of the Year went down to the wire. Lorena Ochoa of Mexico garnered the award for the fourth straight year by finishing second at 12-under 206. Jiyah Shin could have wrestled the award away from Ochoa by finishing better than eighth, but a bogey on the treacherous 180-yard par-3 17th forced her to birdie the 416-yard finishing hole.

Unfortunately, the South Korean came up short of the green and missed the ensuing chip and missed her only chance at becoming the first LPGA Tour player since Nancy Lopez in 1978 to win both the Rookie and Player of the Year awards in the same year.

With two days of rain delays forcing the field to wait in Houstonian's locker room, the players and tour officials had a lot of time to think about how the past two years had affected their product - that's the dark and gloomy part, and how the future (with a new commissioner in place and a solid core of players from around the world) will sort itself out as women's professional golf seeks to become a truly global game.

Next year's 24-event schedule includes 11 overseas tournaments, with stops in Thailand, Singapore, China, South Korea, Japan, France, Canada and England.

The tour had 34 tournaments in 2008 and had 31 on this year's schedule before events in China, Orlando, Hawaii and Alabama were canceled after companies pulled sponsorship because of global economic woes, reducing the circuit to just 28 stops.

In the summer - with the LPGA Tour is disarray following the forced resignation of commissioner Carolyn Bivens - there were as few as nine tournaments secured for 2010. "Getting to this point was a team effort," said LPGA acting commissioner Marty Evans during the announcement of the 2010 schedule earlier this month. "We reached out to sponsors that we currently have and to previous sponsors, and we began talking to a number of prospective sponsors. It was an amazing show of people who were just so committed to get the job done.

"And I hope you'll agree," Evans added, "that 24 tournaments is a great record, but more importantly I would say it's a real way to move forward, and that what we needed was a momentum factor. We have a great platform for 2010, and things will be better in 2011 under our new commissioner. These are exciting times, especially when things looked so bleak earlier this year."

"We got 24 events, and that's a small victory for us," said LPGA Tour veteran Cristie Kerr, who finished tied for 12th after a closing 70. "And you have to build from there. A new regime is coming in, and there is a chance to market and build the tour the way it's supposed to be done."

Evans, a retired U.S. Navy rear admiral, will leave the commissioner's post at the first of the year to Michael Whan. The 44-year-old Whan previously worked for TaylorMade Golf and Wilson Sporting Goods and most recently was president of Mission-Itech Hockey.

"Having been on the brand side of the big corporate brands, they're always looking for partnerships that can build their business and build their brand," Whan said. "The LPGA represents a very unique and powerful one."

Three events in Mexico will attempt to draw on the popularity of the charismatic Ochoa, one of the tour's top players.

"Golf is growing, golf is in the Olympics - we do have to go overseas," said LPGA Tour player Paula Creamer, who shot ended up tied for 55th after going even-par 218 in the Tour Championship. "The LPGA Tour is based in America, and I feel that we need to have a lot of events here. It's important for women's golf. However, I'm very global with my sponsors, and I think it's important to get out in the world. I was happy to see some good tournaments in the States. Some purses have been raised, some were lowered. We have some off weeks, which is not the best of things, but we're heading in the right direction"

"It doesn't really matter where (the tournaments) are for me, if it's in Asia or in America, I am just happy to play," said Japanese star Ai Miyazato, who shot a 3-under 69 and finished tied for eighth at 6-under 210.

"The economy obviously hit everybody, but we are feeling better about our future and our new leadership," added Angela Stanford, who closed with a 1-under 71 and a T32. "I think sponsors and fans will see that. Even if next year is kind of a down year for us compared to years past, 2011 and 2012 are going to be great. I think the momentum of this year is going to catch on with fans and sponsors."

Christina Kim, who was a key member with Kerr and Stanford on the victorious U.S. team in the Solheim Cup in August, said that just the fact that the players have a schedule makes them happy. "I don't know of any tour which is going to have more tournaments in 2010 than in 2009," said Kim, who failed to make the cut and earn a spot in the final round of the LPGA Tour Championship. "We have such a fantastic product, and we're definitely moving in the right direction. Things are going to get better."

The LPGA still has work to do on its final schedule. In fact, this year's Tour Championship site in the Houston area was not cemented until May. Three events on the 2010 calendar - in China, South Korea and the LPGA Tour Championship - still don't yet have sponsors or tournament sites.

Steve Habel is one of Cybergolf's national correspondents, contributing news stories, features, equipment and book reviews and personality profiles from his base in Central Texas. He is also the managing editor for Business District magazine in Austin and works as a contributing editor for Horns Illustrated magazine, a publication focusing on University of Texas sports. He also writes a blog (www.shotoverthegreen.blogspot.com), which features news on golf and the Longhorns.