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Original Issue

Play It Forward

Professional golf and charity have a long and rich history, but the LPGA took giving to a whole new level when the tour kicked off its U.S. season by playing for free—and donating $1 million

Karrie Webb won the first-ever RR Donnelley Founders Cup by a single stroke over Paula Creamer and Brittany Lincicome. But it was Angela Stanford who had the shot of the week. Coming off a double bogey on the 8th hole at the Wildfire Golf Club outside Phoenix last Friday, Stanford deposited her tee shot at the next into a fairway bunker. Her second shot, from 142 yards, hit the flagstick on its second hop and dropped for an eagle.

Yet Stanford's hole out was not the most spectacular save of the week. That feat was pulled off by second-year LPGA commissioner Michael Whan, whose willingness to set aside his ego and listen to his players not only salvaged this groundbreaking, singularly virtuous event but also helped make it an unqualified success, one of the feel-good sports stories of the year.

Make no mistake, this thing could've been a debacle. When Whan shared his ideas for the Founder's Cup with the players in January—How about if, at this one tournament, you donate ALL of your winnings to charity!—it wasn't exactly greeted with rave reviews. But not for the reasons you might think.

Sure, some players resented the presumption that they'd be happy to part with their hard-earned cash. (More than one suggested that for purposes of solidarity, the commish also fork over a week of his salary. He did.) First of all, the vast majority are already deeply involved with charities and charitable foundations. Second, the LPGA doesn't mint millionaires the way the PGA Tour does. (Eight LPGA players topped $1 million in earnings in 2010 compared with 90 men, and 17 Tour players have already passed the seven-figure mark this season.) Giving up a week's pay is a bigger sacrifice for the women than it is for many of their male counterparts.

But believe it or not, the prospect of skipping a paycheck wasn't the main sticking point for most of Whan's constituents. The LPGA members taking issue with their boss—and the blowback was considerable—tended to voice the same objection: that the format, as conceived by him, didn't give enough to charity.

How's that?

Well, the original plan was for the tournament to put up a "mock purse" (to use the LPGA's inauspicious coinage) of $1.3 million—"imaginary money," as Creamer correctly called it. Players would get credit on the tour's money list and earn points in the Rolex World Rankings. But the event's designated charity, the LPGA-USGA Girls Golf Foundation, stood to collect only $500,000—the amount Whan estimated the tournament could clear after expenses. In his eagerness to get his brainchild on the schedule, and reap the considerable p.r. windfall, he was willing to give RR Donnelley its title sponsorship on the cheap.

"I'm having a difficult time with that," Creamer told Golf Channel in January. "I don't understand how a sponsor or company like RR Donnelley, a $10 billion company, can't be on board to put up prize money equal to what's given to the charity."

It also rankled many of the golfers that Whan's format allowed for no flexibility in their giving. If they were going to travel to the tournament on their own dime (as they always do) and hand over any money they won, it might be nice for them to have a say in where that money went.

To his credit Whan listened, and tweaked. With RR Donnelley, local sponsors and major equipment makers kicking in (take a bow, Adams, Callaway, Nike, Ping and TaylorMade), the tournament cobbled together a $1 million purse—this one consisting of real money, all of which went to charity: half to Girls Golf, half to charities designated by the players. It wasn't long before most of the golfers who had been on the fence for this event—Creamer, Christie Kerr, Morgan Pressel—declared themselves "all in." What threatened to be a tournament heavy on second-guessing and light on marquee players turned into a showcase of very good golf and excellent virtue. The decision to let players choose their own charities paid unexpected dividends, revealing scores of compelling story lines. Christina Kim played for Doctors Without Borders, Nicole Jeray for the Narcolepsy Network. Mollie Fankhauser's charity of choice was Animal Haven Pit Bull Rescue; Spanish golfer Beatriz Recari played for the Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness and courageously discussed her own history with that issue.

With the catastrophe in Japan still unfolding as the tournament got under way, many golfers chose charities bringing relief to that country (page G20). While Whan had been criticized for rushing this tournament from the drawing board to the calendar, the situation in Japan made the timing of an event devoted to charitable giving seem, if anything, serendipitous.

Sacrifice was one of the unofficial themes at this tournament, whose primary purpose is to celebrate the LPGA's 13 founders, five of whom are still alive, and three of whom—Marilynn Smith, Shirley Spork and Louise Suggs—graced the event with their presence, mingling with fans and sharing stories about how they barnstormed the country back in 1950, the LPGA's first season. Those pioneering souls taped flyers to shop windows, gave clinics, organized the pro-am and often missed practice rounds because they were too busy marking the course, pounding stakes and typing up press releases.

The scrappiness of the founders, their grit and resilience, served as an inspiration to today's LPGA, which is fighting to remain viable. After playing 31 tournaments in 2007, the women's tour is down to 26 events this season—only 13 of them on American soil. But the economy is rebounding, as Whan frequently notes, while not trying to sound too much like Herbert Hoover. Prosperity—and, hopefully, new sponsorship—is just around the corner.

Whan has yet to erase a voice mail he got from Smith, who called immediately after getting a letter from him in which he detailed his plans for the Founders Cup. "I'm going to write you a letter," she says, "but I just had to call and tell you how much I appreciate this. All the founders do." At that point the 81-year-old's voice cracks. "I'm sorry," she says, when she is unable to continue. "I just appreciate what you're doing for the founders and for the LPGA."

One of the cool aspects of this event was that the respect and gratitude flowed both ways. Asked if the loss of a paycheck hurt, Stanford told the truth: "Yes, it will," admitted the Texan, whose closing 75 dropped her from first to fifth. "I have to play well to make my living. So, in that respect, it's hard. But every player here needed help to get where they are. Nobody did it by herself. We wouldn't be here without the founders. So I can give a week of my life to help somebody else down the road."

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"I can give a week of my life to help somebody else down the road," Stanford said.


Photographs by KOHJIRO KINNO

GIVING SPIRIT Webb, who would have won $200,000, instead donated the first-prize cash to the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation and to Japan Relief, then posed with LPGA founders (inset, clockwise from top left) Spork, Smith and Suggs.



ALL IN Stanford (top) admitted that it hurt to give up a paycheck, while Whan got points for tweaking his idea.



[See caption above]