March 11 was a climactic day in the life of Ty Votaw, the
boyish-looking LPGA commissioner. At high noon his lawyer filed
end-of-the-line divorce papers at the red-brick Flagler County
courthouse in the tiny town of Bunnell, Fla. Seven hours later
Votaw was on a speakerphone, talking to the playing members of
the LPGA board of directors, telling them what they already
knew: that he and his wife, Paula, separated for more than a
year, would soon be divorced, and that he had been dating one
of their fellow players, Sophie Gustafson, for several months.
¬∂ Votaw was in Daytona Beach, where the LPGA has its
headquarters. The players were in a meeting room at a Double
Tree hotel in Tucson, across the street from Randolph Park,
where last week the LPGA held its first tournament of the year.
In his conference call the commissioner assured the players
that he could separate his personal life from his professional
life and asked for their understanding. What a start to a new
It's hard to imagine the commissioner of baseball--or any major
sport--dating a player and keeping his job, but things are
different on the LPGA tour. The six players on the 12-person LPGA
board have all professed their support for Votaw to the
chairwoman, Marguerite Sallee, the CEO of The Brown Schools. "The
board is 100 percent behind Ty," Sallee says. The LPGA
commissioner serves at the pleasure of the LPGA board, which
Votaw has apparently pleased for four years. "The LPGA has a
different culture than baseball," she says. "The baseball
commissioner has been a dogmatic figure in the game. The
commissioner of the LPGA does not act unilaterally. This is an
unusual situation, but I don't think it's a problem." To which
Votaw could only add, "I have an excellent board."
Dottie Pepper said last week that a player and a commissioner
could have an amorous relationship without a conflict of interest
arising, as long as they were both open and aboveboard about the
relationship. "He's not doing what Clinton did," said Pepper, who
is not a board member. "He's not denying, denying, denying."
Another prominent player, Meg Mallon, said, "When it comes to
matters of the heart, you can't deny yourself."
Two former LPGA commissioners, Charlie Mechem and Jim Ritts, gave
votes of confidence to Votaw. Mechem, who remains a board member,
first brought Votaw into the LPGA in 1991, as general counsel.
"You deal with the problems as they come up, if they come up,"
Mechem said. "The LPGA commissioner is like the CEO of a company.
The players are not his employees; they're his shareholders."
Ritts, who preceded Votaw on the job, maintains a friendship with
his successor. Over the winter Ritts and his wife, Lisa, had
dinner in New York City with Votaw and Gustafson. Said Ritts,
"Does this relationship place Ty under greater scrutiny?
Absolutely. Is he the kind of person who can handle the scrutiny?
Privacy has long been an issue among LPGA players. Some of them
are gay, yet none are publicly so, and Votaw has been deeply
protective of, as he says, "the privacy rights of all my
players." They're not really his players, but his meaning is
There's as much infighting on the LPGA tour as there is in the
Soprano family--some say such drama is part of the circuit's
charm--and there are players who say they're appalled that their
commissioner is dating a fellow competitor. Most are afraid to go
public with their opinions, fearing reprisals. Some wonder if
Gustafson will get her hotel room paid for by the LPGA when she
stays with Votaw on the road. (He says no.) Some wonder how Votaw
will handle disciplinary matters for Gustafson and her friends.
Sherri Turner, who has played the tour since 1984, was openly
critical of the relationship. "Back in my day," she said, "there
was an unwritten rule that players didn't date rules officials or
any officials. Maybe I'm old-fashioned, but [this relationship]
is inappropriate. I've been an LPGA member for 20 years. Week in
and week out people are always putting down the LPGA. Maybe Ty is
happy, but we need good, positive press."
Votaw says he is happy. (Paula Votaw, an executive at
International Speedway Corp. in Daytona Beach, declined to be
interviewed.) Gustafson says she's happy, too.
They're an unlikely couple, to say the least. For starters, who
has ever heard of a commissioner of any sport dating a player
under his watch? (Votaw has: In an interview he noted that
Leonard Armato, the commissioner of the Association of Volleyball
Professionals, is married to a prominent player, Holly McPeak.)
There's the age gap: Gustafson is 29, Votaw is 41 and the father
of two young children. There's the culture gap: Gustafson is
Swedish, Votaw grew up in Ohio, the son of a carpenter. Votaw is
a duffer; Gustafson has represented Europe on the Solheim Cup
team three times. Gustafson is a big, strong woman, one of the
longest hitters on the tour, who stands 5'8", an inch or two
taller than Votaw. Counselor Votaw has a silver tongue. Gustafson
has a severe stutter and prefers to conduct her interviews by
email, through which she expresses herself with a simple ease.
Replying to questions, Gustafson wrote last week that Votaw "is
the kindest, most understanding man I have ever met. Sounds like
a cliche, but it's the absolute best to have a guy like that."
Gustafson wrote that other players and her caddie have joked
about how the commissioner will treat her harshly in his official
capacity: "Getting twice the fine, getting harder punishment just
to prove he is not favoring me. I got to tell you, I have to do
no wrong now! If I do, Ty will come down hard on me just to prove
he is not giving me favorable treatment. I'm worse off in this
situation than I was before." Gustafson was kidding. Still, she
sent a copy of her responses to the commissioner.
That is not business as usual, but their relationship has been
anything but for some time. They became involved--but not
romantically, Votaw says--in November 2001, in Japan, where
Gustafson was competing in the Mizuno Classic, which Votaw
attended. Gustafson was putting the finishing touches on a year
in which she would finish 15th on the LPGA money list. In a hotel
lobby on the night before the first round, Gustafson was arguing
with her former caddie (and former boyfriend), Chuck Hoersch,
about the size of his year-end bonus. Hoersch said last week that
Votaw took over the negotiations in a way that hinted at more
than an innocent relationship between the two. Votaw said he
became involved only because Gustafson had asked him to and
because Hoersch was "acting volatile." Hoersch said Gustafson
returned to her room and that he and Votaw had a protracted and
heated discussion that lasted from 12:30 a.m. until 5:30 a.m.
"At one point I said to him, 'Is this appropriate, for the LPGA
commissioner to be negotiating a dispute between a caddie and his
player?'" Hoersch said. "'I'll bet Golf Week and Golf World would
be pretty interested in this.' And he said something like, 'I
want you to know I've called my wife, and she knows everything
I'm doing here.'"
"If I said something like that, it was only because he probably
threatened to call my wife," Votaw says. "I didn't negotiate the
terms of the bonus. I stepped in to stabilize a volatile
situation." Hoersch did not work on the LPGA tour last year. He
says he will not work a tour over which Votaw presides.
In January 2002 Gustafson attended, at Votaw's suggestion, a
special three-week school in Roanoke, Va., to help with her
stuttering. The next month Votaw initiated the divorce, moving
out of his family's home in Ormond Beach, Fla. The LPGA fishbowl
rivals anything you would see at a pet store, and soon the
players were telling stories that had Votaw linked not only to
Gustafson but to two other golfers as well. At a players' meeting
last May some LPGA members voiced their concern that the
commissioner's private life was interfering with his work.
Gustafson's game was suffering, and in mid-July she
uncharacteristically pulled out of an event in Youngstown, Ohio,
and returned to Europe "to get my groove back," she wrote in an
email to SI. In August an informal player survey asked this
simple question: Do you think Votaw is doing a good job? Of the
105 pros polled, 67 said no, 21 said yes, and 17 had no comment.
It was not, according to Gustafson and Votaw, the summer of love.
They say there was a period during which they discussed whether
it was right to see each other, before moving forward with their
relationship. Votaw will say only that their relationship began
in the fall of 2002. He says he has never had an intimate or
physical relationship with any other player. In January 2003 the
new couple made the most public of acts: They attended the Super
Bowl together. A brief item on this high-living sporting date ran
in Golf World, and from that, many LPGA players had their first
confirmation that the player and the commissioner were truly a
couple. Some LPGA pros--those who consider themselves close to
Votaw--were hurt that this was how they learned of the
At times during his tenure Votaw has been an impressive leader,
maybe never more so than in November, when he publicly urged
Augusta National to accept a woman member, a position that put
him at odds with PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem. In public
Votaw, in his shirts with French cuffs and with his neatly combed
hair and carefully chosen words, always seems in complete
control. But in the LPGA offices he is known to scream when
things go wrong. While complaining to an SI contributor about an
item in the magazine, he once said, "I'm the best
f------commissioner this tour has ever had."
What he is, undeniably, is hardworking. Last Saturday, Votaw flew
to Tucson to catch the final round of the Welch's/Fry's
Championship. Playing a short (6,176 yards), simple public
course, Wendy Doolan shot a 21-under-par 259 to win $120,000.
Votaw was standing on the 18th green on Sunday afternoon, in the
Arizona sunshine, when it was over. He knows he has work to do.
The player he is closest to opened with a 65, but she finished in
last place at four-over 284, good for $1,434. Gustafson knows she
has work to do, too.
In Tucson there was a lot of talk about how a person has the
right to be happy. Lost in that talk was the heartbreak of
divorce. In the paperwork filed at the red-brick Florida
courthouse last week was a stark and deeply sad sentence: "The
marriage between the parties is irretrievably broken and should
be dissolved." The commissioner signed off on that sentence, and
so, reluctantly, did his wife.
COLOR PHOTO: MARTA LAVANDIER/AP (TOP) FIRST COUPLE Votaw (opposite) says he and Gustafson began their relationship last fall, after he and his wife separated.
COLOR PHOTO: DARREN CARROLL [See caption above]
COLOR PHOTO: HARRY CABLUCK/AP TRADITIONAL VALUES Turner is unique among LPGA members: She openly says it is inappropriate for Votaw to date a player.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN MILLER/AP (TOP) SEASON'S GREETINGS Votaw flew to Tucson in time to see the big-hitting Doolan kick off the new year with a victory.
COLOR PHOTO: GARY BOGDON FINAL ACT The 15-year marriage of Paula and Ty Votaw came to an end with the filing of these papers.
"Maybe Ty is happy," said Turner, a 20-year LPGA veteran, "but
what we need is good, positive press."
Gustafson calls Votaw "the kindest, most understanding man I have
ever met.... It's the absolute best to have a guy like that."