News & Opinion

NBC/Golf Channel ignores Solheim subplot

The pomp and pageantry on the first tee at the Solheim Cup, not to mention its male equivalent, are unsurpassed. Goosebumps are volcano-sized, players are serenaded by flag-waving fans, nerves jangle like wind chimes and the world of golf is infused with a needed, caffeinated jolt of heightened interest and adrenaline.

Everyone in Iowa seems to be enjoying the goofy hats, ribbons and painted fingernails, thank goodness, because the 15th iteration of the Solheim conceivably could mark the last time around for the U.S. and Europe in its current design.

While the uncomfortable topic wasn’t broached during the NBC/Golf Channel coverage Friday, the future of the European sire represents an elephant in the room this weekend in West Des Moines. 

It’s more like a stampeding herd of them, actually. Like pachyderms, the Ladies European Tour is on the “brink” of extinction, according to overseas reports.

To make the European team, players must be members of the LET, which is barely solvent, according to a June report in The Times of London. The LET disputed the financial details, but the increasingly ugly undercurrent remains.

In fact, the LET is so rife with dissent and insurrection that the tour’s executive committee, composed largely of players, on Aug. 9 asked for the resignation of commissioner Ivan Khodabakhsh, who stepped down. Given the minimal coverage that the tour receives, few Americans noticed. But it warrants notice this week, surely.

Eight months into the year, the LET has played seven sanctioned events – matching the number of tournaments that have been dropped from the original 2017 list. A tournament in Qatar, whose political leaders stand accused of sanctioning terrorism, disappeared from the schedule over the past few days, leaving the LET with only 15 events, down from 26 in 2011.

It’s a valid subplot this week, though you’d never know it based on the broadcast, which did little other than track shots of players when some global context on the potential future of the event would have been not only warranted, but appreciated. 

The European team entered the week as massive underdogs, and trails after the first day, 5½-2½ (scores: http://bit.ly/1NBfkfF). Make no mistake: there aren’t more than a handful, if any, players who are competing on the LET by choice. The growing disparity between events and purses on the LPGA (34 tournaments and $67 million this year) and LET is astounding, and virtually every European-born player with top-tier talent long ago headed for the States. Seven of the 15 LET events this year will offer purses of less than 375,000 euros (about $440,000), while the smallest on the LPGA is $1.3 million, or three times that amount. 

The Times said the LET lost approximately $1.5 million in 2014, with assets dropping to $94,000 by the end of 2015. In fact, because there were so few events staged this year, LET players publicly complained about the lack of opportunity to claim Solheim Cup points.

It’s not as if NBC/Golf Channel isn’t aware of the issue, either. 

“I think privately and behind closed doors, I'd be very surprised if all the players from Europe aren't saying, If we could win this thing, if we could pull this off this time, it might really, really help the state of our tour,” Judy Rankin, a World Golf Hall of Fame member and NBC/Golf Channel analyst, said last week. “Maybe more important than any other time.”

She can drop the “maybe.” Even if she’s wrong, the status of the tour deserves to be addressed and investigated on the air. It stands to reason that there are plenty of LET officials in West Des Moines. 

NBC/Golf Channel analyst Karen Stupples, a two-time European Solheim player and former LET member, said that a victory this week would go a long way toward establishing some needed credibility. 

“It does need a bit of a shot in the arm in terms of something really good to happen for the LET right now,” said Stupples, a native of England, last week. “It's in a bit of a state of flux at the moment, in a transitional period. Lest we all not forget what a poor state of affairs the LPGA was in not that long ago before Mike Whan took over [as commissioner in 2010] and really turned things around. 

“It runs in cycles, and I can say that for [the LET], too.”

It also can run off the rails. Given the paucity of top players on the European side this week – three of the 12 have never won an LET or LPGA event, and Karine Icher’s last victory was in 2005 – some believe that a retooled Solheim between Asia and the Americans would offer a more compelling product. Clearly and convincingly, the product in Asia isn’t going down the economic drain any time soon, either, and the talent pool is much deeper. In fact, only two players on the European team are ranked in the world top 25, while South Korea alone has 11.

Around lunchtime on Friday, Whan tweeted a picture of himself mingling with fans in the Solheim gallery, and another of the snazzy golf cart that he’s using to follow the action. Of course, it’s unlikely that any such photo will be forthcoming from the LET, which doesn’t have a CEO at the moment, much less any apparent directional certainty.

During the one week every two years in which the LET’s stock matters to American viewers, whether NBC/Golf Channel will offer any illumination remains uncertain, too.

Steve Elling has covered golf for the Orlando Sentinel, CBSSports.com and numerous other global print and online outlets. Email: ellingink@gmail.com; Twitter: @EllingYelling