News & Opinion

Senior women want LPGA to take notice

After years of campaigning, the former stars of the LPGA finally had two major championships in which to compete this year. The USGA staged its inaugural U.S. Senior Women’s Open at Chicago Golf Club in July, and the Senior LPGA Championship was played for the second time at Indiana’s French Lick Resort in October.

All is not rosy for those former female stars who have reached their 45th birthday, however. The Legends Tour, which was virtually their only source for tournaments and other golf-related business opportunities, is in a state of flux following Jane Blalock’s decision to step away as the circuit’s chief executive officer.

Nearly 40 years ago, the PGA Tour embraced its older players with the creation of what is now the Champions Tour, but the LPGA – other than declaring the Legends to be its “official’’ senior tour – didn’t act in a similar manner for its older stars. That was left up to Blalock.

She rounded up 25 charter members to form the Women’s Senior Golf Association. It grew into the Legends Tour, which has 120 members. This year, the circuit held an eight-tournament schedule, which included the two majors.

Blalock, 73, was one of the LPGA’s top stars before her retirement as a player in 1987. She made a record 299 consecutive cuts and notched 34 professional victories, 27 of them on the LPGA circuit. She was named to the Legends Hall of Fame in 2014, and she continued to play in its Honors Division events and downplayed her decision to drop the CEO title.

“We moved things around a little bit,’’ she said. “I made the decision that, as opposed to remaining as CEO, my company [JBC Golf] would continue to do the marketing and all the business parts of the tour. The only thing that has changed is my title.’’

There’s a little more to it than that, however. President Gail Graham and vice president Allison Finney also resigned their board positions. Christa Johnson will serve as interim president until an election is held in the next two months.

Blalock conceded that she was not altogether happy with her board members or the LPGA.

“I got frustrated. Outside of the title, the board doesn’t do much,’’ Blalock said. “The board focused on minutiae rather than growing the tour. Now I can focus on getting more events rather than the politics.’’

Although the 2019 schedule has not been announced, Blalock said a tournament in Minneapolis has been added, the existing tournaments will continue and a pro-am has been added to the ANA Inspiration event.

Legends players also will participate in another event with the Symetra Tour: a new tournament in Janesville, Wis. During the recent Senior LPGA Championship at French Lick, some of the tour’s top players urged the creation of more tournaments.

“We don’t want to play every week, but if we had six tournaments and four pro-ams, that would be perfect,’’ Juli Inkster said.

England’s Trish Johnson has campaigned overseas for the creation of a British Senior Women’s Open.

“If we could get one, that would be great,’’ she said, “but who knows when? I’m sure it will happen eventually.’’

Blalock thinks that 12 events – be they three-day tournaments combined with some smaller ones and pro-ams – would be ideal. The 36-hole Legends events with up to 40 players typically have purses of $200,000-$250,000, with the winner’s take being $25,000 or $30,000. Blalock would like an increase to $350,000, with 50 players competing. The winner would receive $40,000, and all competitors would have a payday, as there are no cuts on the Legends Tour.

“We’d like to give the players the opportunity to make enough [money] so they don’t need to have other jobs,’’ Blalock said. “We also need others [notably the players using their own contacts] to get us tournaments. I’ve been the only one who has done that.’’

She remains hopeful that the enthusiasm created by this year’s two majors will build momentum for the creation of more tournaments. As for the Legends’ relationship with the LPGA, though, Blalock said the creation of a senior championship hasn’t created much of a change.

“And it should have,’’ she said.

The LPGA, though, didn’t take that stance. The tour declined to have any of its personnel quoted for this piece. Speaking for the LPGA, a high-ranking LPGA official said the second Senior LPGA Championship was an indication that the older players were not being ignored. He also pointed out that the events in which Legends players are part of Symetra Tour stops have been beneficial to both circuits.

The bottom line apparently is that women’s sports continue to be challenged to find the financial support that their male counterparts enjoy. The LPGA doesn’t have the resources that the PGA Tour does, and that’s why the Champions Tour is thriving while the Legends Tour is hopeful of building off this year’s successes.

Len Ziehm spent 41 years as the golf columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times before his retirement in 2010. He is in his ninth year as golf columnist for the Daily Herald chain of Chicago suburban newspapers and in his 29th year as golf columnist for Chicagoland Golf, a monthly publication. He also contributes to Chicago District Golfer, the Illinois PGA website and operates lenziehmongolf.com. Email: lenziehm@gmail.com; Twitter: @ZiehmLen