News & Opinion

LPGA looks to stars for winning formula

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – You’ve got to give LPGA commissioner Mike Whan credit for at least one thing: He’s not afraid to take chances. And, he has been quick to concede, “When you’re innovative, you’ve got to be willing to strike out some times.’’

The LPGA begins its 70th season this week with a new, innovative event: Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions at Four Seasons Golf and Sports Club Orlando’s Tranquilo course. Play starts on Thursday (tee times).

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Commissioner Mike Whan

This season-opener is more than just an event for LPGA players. It’s being combined with a celebrity tournament. Twenty-six winners on the LPGA circuit over the past two seasons will compete over 72 holes for a $1.2 million purse, and 49 celebrity golfers will compete at the same time in a modified Stableford format for $500,000.

Good idea or not? Time will tell. With the celebrity element, the focus won’t be only on the women’s game. That’s not so good.

Mike Flaskey, chief executive officer for Diamond Resorts, wants the celebrity component for one big reason. “The celebrity side moves the needle for TV rankings,’’ he said. No argument there, but the quality of the golf usually isn’t anything special.

Flaskey has tried other versions for the event during the past four years. It was strictly a weekend pro-am in the first year. Then, to entice TV coverage, a challenge-season event dominated by Champions Tour players was created. Last year, 32 touring pros competed in a modified Stableford event, and four of them – Brooke Henderson, Brittany Lincicome, Brittany Lang and Gerina Piller – were women. Henderson finished seventh, and none of the other three cracked the top 20.

This year represents a big step forward for the women and the event. The LPGA will bring more good players for a no-cut tournament. It’ll be an official event, so the money earned will count in the season totals. Players had to earn the right to play here; they didn’t get in via invitation. And the event will take a step forward by adding a more meaningful competition and a bigger purse.

The PGA Tour already has opened its season with a limited-field event, and the Champions Tour will do so this week. Now the women will, too – but with celebrities also in the mix. Flaskey has called it “the most unique golf tournament in the world.’’

The celebrity element can be a funny thing, though. Will people come, or tune in to TV coverage on Golf Channel and/or NBC, to watch the celebrities? That’s usually determined by the name recognition of those participating in the tournament. The Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions has stars from other sports along with recording artists Lee Brice and Colt Ford (field).

The stars from other sports include baseball’s Roger Clemens, John Smoltz, Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, Clay Buchholz, Josh Donaldson, Terry Francona and Tom Glavine; football’s Marcus Allen, Brian Urlacher, Richard Dent and Mark Rypien; hockey’s Jeremy Roenick; basketball’s Ray Allen and tennis’ Mardy Fish.

Whan has arranged a season opener a week earlier than last year, and the women won’t have another event in the U.S. until the Bank of Hope Foundation tournament in Phoenix on March 21-24. After this week, the LPGA goes overseas for four tournaments – two in Australia, then Thailand and Singapore – before its first full-field event in the U.S.

The second LPGA tournament, the ISPS Handa Vic Open in Australia, is also a new event with an innovative format. Men on the Australasian and European tours will compete concurrently with women from the LPGA and Australian women’s circuits. Also new to the LPGA schedule is the Aon Risk Reward Challenge. It’s a season-long competition on the LPGA and PGA tours, with the winners on each receiving $1 million.

Whan won't predict that all of his innovations will be successful, but his track record is pretty good. Since he took over as LPGA commissioner in 2010, the number of official events has climbed from 23 to 34, and the prize money from $41.5 million to a record $70.55 million. The season-ending CME Group Tour Championship, to be played in Naples, Fla., in November, will feature a $5 million purse, with the winner getting a women’s-record $1.5 million.

Since Whan arrived, the LPGA's satellite Symetra Tour has grown to 23 events, and the Teaching & Club Professionals Division has expanded into 15 countries worldwide. Whan hasn't gotten involved as deeply in the Legends Tour, but the LPGA's stars of the past did get their first major when the Senior LPGA Championship debuted at Indiana's French Lick Resort in 2017.

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