News & Opinion

Haney exposes LPGA’s dirty little secret

Say what you will about Hank Haney’s comments leading up to the U.S. Women’s Open. Say the manner in which they were delivered was insensitive, which it was. Say someone who has gained considerable wealth and reputation as a golf expert should know better, and you’d get no argument.

But when you’re done sounding the alarm, when you’ve trotted out all the phobias and added the appropriate ists, be sure to say one other undeniable thing: He was spot on.

Hank Haney on SIRIUSXM RADIO
Hank Haney on SIRIUSXM RADIO

That’s no credit or compliment to Haney for his flippant radio remarks (“If Haney feels remorse, next step is key,” May 30). But for an American audience – it’s important to make that distinction – and for a USGA championship competing for eyeballs with a treasured PGA Tour event, it is a maddening truth. In today’s politically patrolled environment, it is the LPGA’s dirty little secret that is neither dirty nor secret.

For someone who admittedly couldn’t name more than a couple of LPGA players, Haney randomly picked the nationality and surname of the winner of a major championship: South Korea’s Jeongeun Lee6. And the reason he was able to do it, inappropriately or otherwise, is not a question of blind luck. The odds were in his favor.

A scroll through the Rolex Rankings will reveal 58 players named “Lee.” A look at the top 60 in the rankings will highlight more than 30 who are native Asians, including 21 native Koreans. Meanwhile, just five of the top 30 are Americans, and only Lexi Thompson, at No. 4, is in the top 10.

The trend is unmistakable. When this current season ends, Lee6 will be the ninth consecutive LPGA Rookie of the Year – the 13th in the past 14 – to be either a native Asian or have direct Asian descent.

Culturally, there’s no issue with any of that. The LPGA plays championships in Thailand, Singapore, South Korea, Japan, China and other corners of the globe. Diversity is part of the fiber of the women’s game.

“It's awesome,” said Emmy Talley, a former Alabama star who grew up in Princeton, Ky. “I think it makes the competition harder. I mean, we're really a worldly tour, and so I think this is the best golf you're going to see right here.”

Agreed. From purely a golf standpoint, there is no bone to pick. Anyone who has watched the women realizes the game is more dynamic than ever. As recently as 2009, only two players on the LPGA averaged more than 270 yards in driving distance. Currently, 31 surpass 270, and four exceed 280 yards. The “L” in LPGA now stands for “long.”

No, the issue here is strictly business, more specifically American business. The LPGA benefits greatly from Korean television, and it’s important to keep that in mind. But the Nielsen TV ratings for the U.S. Women’s Open have been in tunneling for more than a decade. The show got a one-off boost in 2014, when Michelle Wie won at Pinehurst. Since then, viewership has continued to be less than a third of what it was in ’06, when Annika Sorenstam won her third Women’s Open and 10th major championship.

For all the delightful diversity, and all the ball-striking dynamics, the LPGA is still a business, a product based in a United States that houses 20 of its 33 events. This is not simply about culture, or caliber of play. This is about marketing, attracting sponsors, driving ratings, selling advertising, etc.

This is not an exhibit, an amateur endeavor or a nonprofit organization. We’re talking about professional golf. The reason for the season, at least as far as managerial staff and players are concerned, is revenue. So, issues bare examination, issues Haney’s comments may have underlined offensively, but underlined nonetheless.

They raise concerns that you might be pondering if you have committed your most prestigious championship to a date opposite Jack Nicklaus and his Memorial Tournament. The women’s game lacks identity. The women’s game needs a beacon, a Wie who wins a lot more often, a Lorena Ochoa, an Annika Sorenstam … or a Se Ri Pak.

When South Korea’s Pak won a 20-hole playoff at the 1998 Women’s Open, combined with what Tiger Woods was doing at the time, it was seminal. But Pak (and Woods, for that matter) didn’t fade back into anonymity. Pak went on to win 25 LPGA events, including five major championships. She became a bookmark, a recognizable name, a selling point, a star.

Lee6’s laborious victory at Country Club of Charleston on Sunday means that the past 10 LPGA majors have been won by 10 different players. This season’s 13 LPGA events have crowned 12 different champions. It’s hard to tell the trees from the forest.

Keep in mind that Lee6 had the number attached to her name on the Korean LPGA. Jeong Eun Lee, also known as Lee5, competed at Charleston. If the KLPGA audiences have trouble differentiating, how do you think American audiences do? The large galleries that clung to Thompson last week suggests they are especially starved for an American patriot.

Vilify Haney all you like. Dismiss his comments for their arrogant and boorish texture. He may have been right for all the wrong reasons … but he was right. And if you’re involved in women’s golf, if you care about where it’s headed, that should be troubling.