THE LPGA tourfinally reached the continental U.S. last week after a season opener in Hawaiiand then a road trip through Thailand, Singapore and Mexico. The weather at theJ Golf Phoenix LPGA International mirrored the general mood on tour: sunny,with occasional gusts of concern. "It's nice to be back home," said thehottest American player, Angela Stanford, but the good vibes transcendgeography. So far this year the LPGA has been buoyed by a steady stream of goodnews, and the Phoenix event, at which Karrie Webb triumphed by three shots, wasa case in point. Only two months ago the tournament was flailing for a sponsorand a host course, after Safeway terminated its longtime support andSuperstition Mountain Golf Club was placed in receivership. J Golf, a divisionof the JoongAng Broadcasting Corporation (JBC), came on board as part of ablockbuster deal that secured the LPGA's Korean television rights beginningnext year, and a credible venue was found in Papago Golf Course, a beloved muniwith a picturesque setting at the base of some dramatic red-rock buttes.
"I don't havethe vocabulary to express how important this tournament was," sayscommissioner Carolyn Bivens. "It was a major gut check for the LPGA. Tohave pulled this off bodes very well for the long-term success of thetournament and, I think, the tour as a whole."
"It was apretty great save," says Morgan Pressel, "but we have to keep workingat it. The frustrating thing is that the LPGA product is the best it's everbeen, but the overall economy is so bad we're struggling tocapitalize."
That's theperception, but the tour has been steadily landing deals. Last week the LPGAannounced a three-year pact for a new official wireless phone company: VTechwill buy TV ads on tournament telecasts and space on lpga.com. It's not agame-changer, but these days any new revenue stream is welcome. The players arealso cashing in on their crossover appeal. Natalie Gulbis is currently one ofthe stars on NBC's Celebrity Apprentice. One of women's golf's liveliestpersonalities, Christina Kim, has secured a contract with Bloomsbury USA towrite a diary of the 2009 season to be published next spring. (The book will becoauthored by this correspondent.) Last week second-year tour player andpart-time model Anna Rawson was introduced as a new spokesperson forgodaddy.com, the Internet domain registrar that has created a certain amount ofbuzz with racy advertising campaigns featuring Danica Patrick. PublicizingRawson's abundant charms should help attract a few more eyeballs for the tour,but just as significant as the deal itself was the splashy press conference atPapago that trumpeted it. The LPGA has long had a policy precluding playersfrom holding self-promoting pressers at tournament sites, but that rule wasstruck down by a reorganized communications department that has already provedto be nimbler and more big picture than its predecessors. Example B of suchrevamped thinking: a recently enacted policy credentialing lowly bloggers attournament media centers.
It's nice of theLPGA to encourage the written word, but better TV exposure is the key to itsgrowth. The most significant macrodevelopment so far this season was lastmonth's announcement of a 10-year deal for Golf Channel to become the tour'sexclusive domestic cable home beginning in 2010. Two of the three tournamentsbefore Papago had no TV coverage in the U.S.: the Honda LPGA Thailand, at whichLorena Ochoa shot a rousing final-round 66 for a comeback victory; and theMasterCard Classic two weeks ago in Mexico City, which featured a bang-bangfinish in which Ochoa, the national sweetheart, came up a shot short of PatHurst in front of raucous galleries. Considering that Mexico City is in thesame time zone as Denver, Bivens concedes, "That was a missed opportunityfor the tour." One that presumably will not be repeated in the future,since Golf Channel will be contractually obligated to televise at least fiveinternational events a year.
Some other recentnewsbreaks have also helped shore up a schedule that contracted by sixtournaments in 2009. This week's Kraft Nabisco Championship will be one of thehighlights of the LPGA's year, but the momentum easily can be lost as the tourgoes dormant for three of the ensuing four weeks. In 2010 one of those holeswill be plugged by the Bell Micro LPGA, which this year was to be played duringa busy stretch in October but will be pushed back six months, into next April.Bivens has drawn shrapnel in the past for imperious dealing with tournamentsponsors, but it was Bell Micro that requested to move to the spring, saying itmade better business sense. "In these challenging times we have to listenvery carefully to our sponsors and help them any way we can," saysBivens.
September'sSamsung Championship has been strengthened by the recent announcement of TorreyPines as a venue for 2009 and possibly '10. "Anytime you can visit a reallyhigh-profile golf course, it does wonders for your schedule," saysStanford. "People who aren't necessarily LPGA fans will come that weekbecause of Torrey, and once we get them there, I bet we'll turn them into LPGAfans for life."
The LPGA has longbeen fan-friendly. At Papago an autograph booth was set up behind the 18thgreen, and even the most high-profile players signed until their fingers werenumb, repeatedly thanking fans for waiting in line. Throw in reasonablepricing—a one-day pass in Phoenix cost $16—and it's no accident that attendancewas up by 24% through the first four tournaments of this year. Michelle Wie'spresence had given the LPGA more than a little box-office appeal. LastSaturday, Wie had dew-sweeping duty as the third time off, at 7:56 a.m., butabout 300 fans turned up to follow her, and the Wie group was chaperoned byfour armed Phoenix cops. Her effect is quantifiable in other ways: Wie's seasondebut at the SBS Open led to the second-most traffic on lpga.com for a nonmajorweek, and the final round, during which she held the lead into the back nine,captured the fourth-largest audience ever for an LPGA round on Golf Channel.And yet, after a distant 57th-place finish, eight over par and 13 shots behindWebb, Wie left Phoenix third in the rookie-of-the-year race, 207 points behindJiyai Shin.
"There are alot of very exciting, very confident young players, and they've put a certainelectricity in the air," says veteran Juli Inkster. "Add to that theSolheim Cup being played this year in the U.S., and there is a lot ofintensity, even this early in the year."
To be sure, theLPGA faces numerous challenges going forward. A number of tournament sponsorsfor next year remain up in the air, and 2009's glitzy new season-ending TourChampionship has become imperiled because the title sponsor is, ahem, StanfordFinancial. The game's best player, Ochoa, is a wonderful ambassador for theLPGA, but mainstream recognition has remained elusive, especially compared withthe one-named ubiquity of the recently retired Annika. On Saturday morning theline to get a table at The Breakfast Club in Old Town Scottsdale stretchedaround the block, but Ochoa enjoyed a leisurely meal undisturbed, even thoughshe offered a clue to her identity by way of the heavily logoed sweater shewould later wear to the course.
Ochoa complementedthe outfit with a sporty skirt, the first time anyone could remember her baringher gams at a tournament. After the third round her amused fiancé, AndresConesa, said, "She didn't think it was a big deal, but 30 people must havecommented on it." Ochoa's new look is representative of the LPGA thisminute: familiar, but a little bit perkier.
NEWS & NOTES
No Stomach for Phoenix
Paula Creamer's bid to win her first major was weakenedwhen she was forced to withdraw from the Phoenix LPGA International, the finaltune-up before this week's Kraft Nabisco Championship. No official reason wasgiven for the WD, but the word on the practice range was that Creamer wassuffering from Montezuma's revenge, the lingering effects of having played twoweeks ago in Mexico City. It's the latest upset to her delicate constitution:This is at least the fourth time that Creamer has fallen ill after playingoutside the U.S. One player who was determined to avoid a similar fate wasMeaghan Francella. She schlepped a suitcase south of the border that wasstuffed with Cup o' Noodles, Top Ramen, Mac & Cheese, granola bars, peanutbutter, Honey Nut Cheerios and Nutella. Francella may have avoided tummytrouble, but she didn't get much rest, as her hotel room was a populargathering spot throughout the week.
"Plinko." —ANGELA STANFORD, referencing ThePrice Is Right game of chance, when asked to describe what it's like to putt onthe bumpy greens at Papago. A reshuffled tour schedule left the muni less thantwo months to prepare for the tournament.
Age has mellowed Karrie Webb but hasn't made her soft.At 34 she smiles more and has made a point of enjoying her Hall of Fame careersuccess, but when a tournament is on the line, Webb can still summon the mostintimidating visage in women's golf. She wore a vintage game face during thefinal round of the J Golf Phoenix LPGA International, ruthlessly coming frombehind to steal her 36th career victory.
In-Kyung Kim was up by a stroke until shedouble-bogeyed the 10th hole, gifting the lead to Webb. Looking predatory, Webbimmediately birdied 11, pushing her margin to two. Kim never made anotherbirdie. Relentless rookie Jiyai Shin made it interesting over the closingholes, but Webb refused to lose.
On 18, a 475-yard par 5, Webb bashed an epic drive thatleft her only 126 yards to the green. Game over. Webb's first LPGA win in twoyears comes at a fortuitous time, on the eve of the year's first major, theKraft Nabisco. Webb has won that championship twice. So far.
Photograph by KOHJIRO KINNO
BOULDER APPROACH Papago's dramatic scenery was a vivid backdrop to the '09 resuscitation, which continued last week.
Photograph by KOHJIRO KINNO
KILLER SMILE Webb's come-from-behind charge showed that she still has the fire to go with her lighter side.
Photograph by KOHJIRO KINNO
IN RANGE Ochoa, who showed up one day in (gasp!) a skirt, failed to break 70 and finished 15th in Phoenix, but she was getting dialed in for this week's Kraft Nabisco, the season's first major.
ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES (CREAMER)
ROBERT BECK (STANFORD)