LPGA lacks star power after Sorenstam, Ochoa departures
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PITTSFORD, N.Y. — As the world's top female players lined the practice range at Locust Hill Country Club last week, they couldn't ignore an inescapable reality: Annika Sorenstam and Lorena Ochoa remain the perceived faces of their sport.
Cristie Kerr, who smoked a bewildered field by a tournament-record 12 shots in the LPGA Championship, walked to her sport utility vehicle without glancing at the larger-than-life figures of Sorenstam and Ochoa stamped alongside the LPGA's sports medicine center trailer.
It's an image that arguably reflects one of the challenges facing women's golf at the 65th U.S. Women's Open at Oakmont Country Club. Practice rounds begin Monday, and the tournament gets under way at 7 a.m. Thursday.
Sorenstam packed her clubs two years ago, citing a shift in priorities. Ochoa, with desires to raise a family, held the No. 1 ranking for 158 consecutive weeks before surrendering the torch this year to Jiyai Shin.
Amid a troubling identity crisis, new LPGA Commissioner Michael Whan said Sorenstam and Ochoa never were bigger than the sport. However, the tour clearly lacks star quality, save wunderkind Michelle Wie.
While Whan copes with other pressing realities, including dwindling sponsorship dollars caused by the recession and a shrinking tournament schedule, he knows the LPGA Tour needs a quick fix, preferably another dominant golfer who jolts the ratings needle and generates fan interest.
"I'm sure there was a commissioner a decade ago who was asked, 'How do you feel about losing Nancy Lopez?' " Whan said. "And there was a commissioner who was asked, 'How do you feel about losing Annika Sorenstam?'
"The fact that those questions continue to be asked shows that someone grabs the mantle. I think the race to the mantle is as exciting as who is it. There are 20 to 25 golfers who can emerge at the top."
Wie appears to be the new icon. No one stirs the crowd more or commands constant media attention and scrutiny.
No one seized the spotlight as much as the LPGA's foreign contingent, including Sweden's Sorenstam and Australia's Karrie Webb (who have a combined five Open wins), Mexico's Ochoa, South Korea's Shin and defending Open champion Eun-Hee Ji, and Japan's Ai Miyazato, a four-time winner this year.
Three weeks ago, Kerr snapped an 0-for-7 drought for U.S. players at the State Farm Classic. She became the first American to be ranked No. 1 since the Rolex world rankings began in 2006 with her LPGA Championship victory, thus positioning herself to win the money title -- a feat an American hasn't achieved since the tour's Betsy King in 1993.
"What's interesting about golf today is that it's borderless," Whan said. "If you're from Japan, then Ai Miyazato is the face of the sport. If you're from South Korea, you might say Jiyai Shin. Or in America, it might be Michelle Wie or Cristie Kerr or Paula Creamer. I think that's what makes the women's game cool.
"We never imagined there would be players from 30 countries playing on the LPGA Tour. We go through some anxieties, but this sport has become global. For American fans, the transition is sometimes uncomfortable."
Whan concedes the sport is transitioning, in part because it has become global -- a reality that in 2008 prompted a controversial proposal for an English-only language policy that was rejected.
The commissioner is leaning heavily on an exclusive 10-year deal with the Golf Channel, which has network rights to cover the LPGA Championship. The Open, a USGA-sanctioned event, will be televised on ESPN and NBC.
"There's nothing wrong with our product," Whan said. "We just need to have more people see it."
The television package enables the tour to familiarize its players with fans. However, even a network package doesn't guarantee the LPGA will find suitable replacements for lost events, such as the Michelob Ultra Open in Williamsburg, Va., which consistently attracted the world's best players at one of the best venues in women's golf.
The tour, too, will lose the Jamie Farr Corning Classic for at least the 2011 season, in part to accommodate the 2011 U.S. Men's Senior Open.
Like NASCAR and other professional sports, the LPGA Tour is affected by the recession. Its tournament schedule consists of 27 events this year, compared with 34 in 2008. There are only 13 tournaments in the United States, compared with 24 in 2008. The 13 tournaments are the fewest in nearly 40 years.
Those are disturbing numbers for golfers, some of whom are willing to sacrifice purse money to preserve tournaments.
Brittany Lincicome, who last year won the Kraft Nabisco Championship, said she is willing to play for less money if it'll help.
Whan is confident the tournament numbers will increase, but luring major sponsors carries a higher degree of difficulty. It will be a challenge trying to replace a corporate giant such as McDonald's, which in 2009 opted not to renew its longtime sponsorship deal with the LPGA Championship, which this year was sponsored by Wegmans Food Markets.
McDonald's left the door open for its return to the LPGA.
Companies such as former sponsors Ginn Resorts and Anheuser-Busch are not expected to return. Neither company returned phone calls for comment.
"A lot of people were just trying to ride out a tough economic time," Whan said. "By no means do we get the feeling that we are out of that, but it's a huge difference between January 2010 and now. We're on track to get more sponsors. I'm not being cocky, but I have zero concern about us having the ability to add tournaments and sponsors in 2011 and certainly by 2012."
The tour hopes to reach out further, possibly to China and Thailand, he said.
"I don't have a closed mind to where we can play a major (like the LPGA Championship)," Whan said. "Right now, there isn't place to take the sport internationally. We can definitely find the sponsors and courses, but the only challenge we have is making sure the time slot fits so we can have American fans follow it."
Whan is focusing on getting LPGA events in markets that lost tournaments, such as Hawaii and Florida. Both states were traditional tour stops. The commissioner is pushing for as many as 30 tour events, particularly in major markets such as Chicago and Indianapolis.
Built in America
Women's golf needs a shot in the arm, someone to perk it up.
Kerr injected a heavy dose of adrenaline with her dominating victory in the year's second major, the LPGA Championship. If nothing else, Kerr's performance drew comparisons to Tiger Woods' historic victories at the 1997 Masters and 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, Calif.
Although there is no dominating player on tour, Kerr attracted nearly everyone's attention with her sparkling iron play and dazzling putting to win her second major championship and establish herself as the clear favorite to win this week's Women's Open.
"I think what I did is good for our tour and the women's golf," Kerr said.
But was it good for television?
Wie's first career victory at the Lorena Ochoa Invitational in November was one among the best LPGA Tour ratings for the Golf Channel. The 0.72 final-round rating represents the network's second-highest-rated LPGA Tour round and second-most-watched LPGA Tour telecast on any cable network in 2009.
Overall household ratings for LPGA final round telecasts is 0.2 with an average of 314,000 households per telecast. The LPGA Championship final round had a 0.4 rating. Final-round Golf Channel ratings have averaged 0.1 this year.
Stacy Lewis is convinced that a more competitive LPGA will attract fans and viewers.
"We're almost in a better place because there are so many more people contending, and that was true even when Lorena was playing," Lewis said. "We are a collection of great players, so we are in a better place than we were a couple of years ago. We've got a couple of rookies going well.
"As a player, I don't think we need one dominant player. I think it's better to have competition, and that makes a golf tournament more exciting."
That might be good news for USGA President Jim Hyler, who's hoping a competitive Open will attract more than the 90,000 fans who attended the 2009 U.S. Women's Open at Saucon Valley Golf Club in Bethlehem.
"We're pretty much on target to meet our expectations," Hyler said. "Obviously, the economy has had an impact on corporate entertainment. Nonetheless, we've pretty much met our expectations."
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