The Norman Transcript

November 21, 2012

LPGA Tour ahead of the curve on worldwide travels

By Doug Ferguson
The Associated Press

NAPLES, Fla. — Alarm bells went off when the best golfers no longer were Americans, whether the measure was a ranking or simply who kept winning the majors.

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.”

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