News & Opinion

LPGA evolves on global sports stage

Whenever I mention the LPGA to hardcore golf buddies, the first words out of their mouths are, “How can that tour survive without more American stars?’’

KILDEER, Ill. – Whenever I mention the LPGA to hardcore golf buddies, the first words out of their mouths are, “How can that tour survive without more American stars?’’

It’s a topic this week because the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship begins today at Kemper Lakes in Chicago’s northwest suburbs (tee times), where the late Payne Stewart won the 1989 PGA.

Here’s what I tell the guys: Of course, more American players would help. But the LPGA not only can survive; it has learned to thrive because the tour has gone global. Other sports talk about going global. The LPGA has done it.

Lexi Thompson
Lexi Thompson stands out as the only American in the top 10 of the women’s world rankings.

Lexi Thompson stands out as the only American in the top 10 of the women’s world rankings.

The LPGA’s 34 events will be played in 14 countries. And these are not all Silly Season junkets to the Caribbean and other resorts. This year, the LPGA will tee it up in the Bahamas, Australia, Thailand, Singapore, the United States, Scotland, England, Canada, France, Malaysia, South Korea, China, Taiwan and Japan. LPGA players will compete this season for a record $68.75 million in prize money.

Compare that schedule with 2011, when the women’s tour bottomed out at 23 events and $40.5 million in prize money.

I asked LPGA commissioner Mike Whan, who’s in his ninth season of leading this truly world tour, if he takes a lot of calls from the National Football League, Major League Baseball and other leagues that talk about going global.

“Less today than four or five years ago,’’ he said. “I think everybody has their plans in place now.’’

The difference is, the LPGA’s plan is reality.

Only one American, No. 3 Lexi Thompson, is in the top 10 of the women’s world rankings, which features five Koreans, two players from Thailand and one each from China and Australia. The LPGA’s largest source of revenue? Its Korean TV contract, which is believed to be in excess of $4 million annually.

More American standouts would be welcome – to help grow prize money, which is only about one-fifth of the men’s annual purse, as well as TV revenue. The LPGA isn’t dependent on them, though.

“I hear that comment in a lot of places, not just America,’’ Whan said. “When I’m in Shanghai, I hear, ‘We need more successful Chinese.’ In Kuala Lumpur, we hear people say, ‘I wish you had more players from Malaysia.’ Every country wants to have more of their own at the top of the world rankings. I get that.’’

From the beginning of his LPGA tenure, though, Whan heard the grumbles about the need for more Americans.

“I got a long handwritten letter from a fan in Arizona,’’ he said. “He said, ‘Commissioner, your tour is never going to be great again until you get another great American like Annika Sorenstam.’ He’s completely convinced she’s not Swedish. I thought, it’s do-able. You can root for superstars no matter where they’re from.’’

That said, with 19 of the 34 stops in the United States, having players who speak English is important. But rather than ordering players to learn English or face suspension, an ill-advised move in 2008 by previous LPGA commissioner Carolyn Bivens that quickly was rescinded amid a storm of bad publicity, Whan took a different approach.

The LPGA hired a language tutoring company that traveled with the tour: “We had tour players and staff members learning different languages. We had Americans learning Japanese. Japanese learning Korean. Koreans learning Spanish. The best thing about these athletes is they are the most incredible overachievers you’re ever going to meet. They’ll learn English in one-third the time it would take you and I.’’

With its global reach, the LPGA has important sponsorship ties with JTBC, its Korean TV partner; ANA, the Japanese airline; the Lotte Group, a Japanese-Korean conglomerate, and Hugel, a Korean beauty-products firm that makes Botox. In the United States, the traditional carmakers, retailers and banks/financial-services companies are partners.

It’s a model that not only works well in Grand Rapids, Mich., and Bentonville, Ark., the corporate homes of Meijer and Walmart, respectively. Thanks to bullish Asian sponsors, the LPGA returned to Los Angeles this season. Meanwhile, KPMG has been all-in in suburban Chicago during the past two years, putting its money on an event that’s a partnership with the PGA of America.

Are there more LPGA events in the future for Chicago, which has at times been a tough golf-sponsor sell?

“We’ve had a lot of success there the last few years,’’ Whan said. “But I don’t sit in my office and circle a city and say, ‘That’s where we need to play.’ I asked KPMG, ‘Where can this tournament be most beneficial for your business?’ We don’t ask our sponsors to sponsor events in certain cities. We play events where our sponsors tell us it could have the best impact on their business.’’

That philosophy, as opposed to the nationality of players, is what makes today’s LPGA tick so successfully.

Herb Gould is a former golf and senior college-sports writer for the Chicago Sun-Times, where his work still appears occasionally, and is a co-founder of Email: Twitter: @HerbGould