Tuesday, November 20, 2012 4:21 pm
LPGA Tour ahead of the curve on global travel
By DOUG FERGUSONAP Golf Writer
That was the LPGA Tour a generation ago.
It took awhile for the men to experience the same shift to a more global game, such as Europeans occupying the top four spots in the world ranking at the end of last year, or the Americans getting shut out of six straight majors. Or the time Lee Westwood, whose humor can be vastly underrated, was speaking at a dinner when he mentioned Steve Stricker winning the previous week at the John Deere Classic. Looking at PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem, he said, "Nice to see an American win on your tour."
The next cause for concern in women's golf was having to leave home to build a schedule.
It looks like the LPGA Tour again was ahead of its time.
The women finished a whirlwind - not to mention worldwide - schedule over the last three months by going from Virginia to England to Alabama in consecutive weeks, and then ended its season with three straight tournaments that took them from Japan to Mexico to Florida.
This might not have been what Karrie Webb had in mind when she moved halfway around the world for a Hall of Fame career on the LPGA Tour. Her rookie season, there were 34 events on the LPGA Tour schedule, all but four of them in the United States. This year, 12 of the 27 official events were outside the country.
"I envisioned playing most of my career in the U.S.," she said. "Even for me, coming from Australia, it was a bit of an adjustment. But I realized that's where the money is. It will take many years to get the economy back to where it was for us to have a luxurious schedule in the U.S. There's money in Asia and a lot of interest in golf. I was OK with it then. But learning more from being on the (LPGA) board, having Asian events helps the health of our tour."
Cristie Kerr put it more bluntly, as she always does.
"We were definitely ahead of the curve," Kerr said. "Without that, our tour might have gone away. We have a lot to be thankful for of the Asian countries."
The LPGA Tour's worldwide schedule used to be seen as a stigma. Now it is a way of life for them.
And it's getting that way for others.
The European Tour had no choice but to follow the money when economies faltered. Just look at the last 10 years. About 65 percent of its tournaments in 2002 were played in Europe, including seven in England. This year, only 47 percent of the tournaments were held in Europe.
There were as many tournaments in China as there were in Scotland this year. There were as many tournaments in Dubai as there were in England. And the country that held the most official events on the European Tour? That would be the United States (with three majors and three "World" Golf Championships).
"It was clearly a stigma," LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan said. "But I said this to our players and our staff, `Gang, I promise you the rest of our sport is going to follow.' Unfortunately, we're going to be the model. We're going to make all the silly mistakes. But you can't go back."
By mistakes, he was alluding to former Commissioner Carolyn Bivens' short-lived attempt to penalize players who didn't learn to speak English. Four years later, Kerr is starting to learn Korean, in part because one of her sponsors is the Korean Exchange Bank.
"Every business where I've worked went global," Whan said, mentioning Proctor & Gamble, TaylorMade and the hockey industry. "And the end result is pretty cool. Your buffet is so much fuller. We believe we're the future of sport. That sounds pretty bold. But how much money has the NBA spent a year to power into an international program? Or the NFL or Major League Baseball? For us, we're there."
Is it ideal? Maybe not.
"We have the best players from around the world. They move here and they want to play here," Whan said. "I've had more than our share of players ... you would think, `Oh, they love your Korea event.' No. They want another Atlanta event."
The PGA Tour is the strongest in the world. Thanks in large part to Tom Wade, the top executive in charge of marketing, the tour has been able to renew sponsorships or find replacements for nearly every tournament domestically. Then again, that didn't keep the tour from following the money. When it goes to a fall start for its 2013-14 season, two of the events will be in Asia. The tour might have looked for other opportunities if it had not been a little late to the table.
The LPGA Tour started going international even in healthier times. It was during the recession that domestic events started to go away - 24 domestic events at the start of 2008 compared with 13 last year - and international events slightly increased.
Whan is optimistic that the LPGA Tour will add another event next year outside Beijing, and the ideal schedule would include four or five more American events, with about 60 percent of the tournaments at home. There is work left to get that done.
Players, meanwhile, found cause to embrace trips overseas. They get a business-class plane ticket and stay in five-star hotels in Singapore and Malaysia and just about everywhere else they go. There is no cut, so everyone makes money. They are treated like rock stars, compared with getting ignored at times in America.
"In Malaysia, our players stayed in a five-star hotel connected to a mall," Whan said. "I'm sure we raised the gross national product that week."
He said the HSBC Women's Champions in Singapore had the atmosphere of the U.S. Women's Open, and its South Korean event attracted more coverage and bigger crowds than the K.J Choi Invitational held the same week.
The LPGA is off for nearly three months. Its new season will start an ocean or two away from home, which no longer seems all that far away.