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Tuesday, January 15, 2013
LPGA has a lot to be excited about in 2013

By Mechelle Voepel

The most comfortable part of the job when Mike Whan took over as LPGA commissioner in late 2009? Actually, the cold, hard cash part.

Certainly not because it was plentiful. It was anything but that. The worldwide recession had tightened everyone's belts, and the LPGA was feeling it rather severely. Sponsors had pulled away, events had dropped off the tour.

Yet Whan's professional life always had been in business. He knew what it was like on that side, debating where to spend available dollars.

"I was very familiar with that," Whan said Tuesday as the LPGA released its 2013 schedule. "To sign a big deal -- the nervousness and challenges that come with that. So I always felt at ease talking to companies about their expectations and contracts. It's kind of in my sweet spot."

Thus, he immediately began to build -- or rebuild where needed -- corporate relationships. That was second nature for him.

As the LPGA looks toward a new year, the benefits of Whan's efforts are showing. But now, he's also just as comfortable with every other aspect of being commissioner: interacting with the players, connecting with the fan base, understanding how to maximize the impact of the media.

So the excitement in Whan's voice is real when he talks about what 2013 will offer in women's golf.

The U.S. Women's Open will be in New York. The Women's British Open will be at the legendary Old Course at St. Andrews in Scotland. There's a new, fifth "major" designation for one of the tour's richest and best-established events, the Evian Championship in France. And it's a Solheim Cup year, with the event in the United States, south of Denver.

Whan was up very early Tuesday morning talking about it all on the Golf Channel. Even later in the afternoon, he still sounded chipper.

"Now when I think about the schedule, I think about all the places and people I know there that we'll be seeing," Whan said of his familiarity after three years on the job. "It's a pretty tight family with the LPGA. We're a traveling circus in a way."

A caravan that, in fact, for the past few years has traveled more and more. That will continue. The tour announced 28 tournaments Tuesday -- not including the Solheim Cup -- 18 of which are in North America, including a new event in the Bahamas. Ten are in Asian countries, including another inaugural event, in China. Two tournaments are in Europe, both now designated as LPGA majors.

There's a positive spin to be put on the fact that while the LPGA is still a domestic-based tour, it has a significant worldwide presence that continues to expand.

"I want to be global, but with a clear headquarters," Whan said. "We have players who come from around the world, but most of them do have homes in the United States. They want to play here, which is good for us and our fan base.

"But the growth of the women's game worldwide is at a pace that nobody could have foreseen 25 years ago. No one would have believed then that the LPGA's top 20 players would come from six or seven different countries."

That's how the tour has evolved, though, which sometimes is presented as a negative in terms of dampening the interest level in the United States. However, the more pragmatic -- and economically advantageous -- way to look at it is this: A tour that is no longer heavily dominated by American players, as once was the case, is a better sell to a global audience.

It's even beneficial for the American players, who sometimes find themselves getting more attention in other countries than they might in the United States.

And especially now that the door is open in China -- which had its first LPGA winner in Shanshan Feng last year -- pretty much everyone on the tour will have a tournament located somewhere that is close to home.

That includes the third new event on this year's schedule, which is in Irving, Texas. The Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex hasn't had an LPGA presence since the 1991 U.S. Women's Open was held at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth. Of course, one of the biggest women's golf stories ever also took place at that course in 2003, when Annika Sorenstam competed in a PGA tour event there.

That was a decade ago, and the LPGA has weathered storms since. Sorenstam's retirement was a blow because of her name recognition and popularity on tour; same with Mexico's Lorena Ochoa retiring.

The missteps and misunderstandings under commissioner Carolyn Bivens have been well-chronicled. So has the tour's shall-we-say "complicated" relationship with its Asian players. And financial issues have hurt every entertainment industry.

Yet the LPGA seems clearly in a better place now than when Whan took the job. The 2013 schedule doesn't have giant holes, and it may fill out just a little more as an additional event may be added.

The LPGA is set up to have the bulk of the U.S.-based tournaments in the late spring and summer, starting in March. Then in the fall, when the NFL and college football are in full swing and taking up so much of the American sports spotlight, the LPGA mostly will be overseas.

"I don't know if we have the perfect balance, but it's a reasonable balance," Whan said of the location of the events throughout the year. "We have a schedule that ensures high-quality fields every week. It enables the great players to play most of it."