LPGA's strategy is risky or pure genius
ORLANDO, Fla. -- Shortly after Mike Whan was hired as LPGA commissioner in January 2010, inheriting a tour suffering multiple cuts and bruises that were slowly bleeding off its appeal, he received a handwritten letter of advice from a self-proclaimed concerned fan.
Mailed from Arizona, the letter warned, "Commissioner, your tour will never be good again until you get another great American player like Annika Sorenstam."
The theory's only drawback, of course, is that Sorenstam, the popular face of women's golf for more than a decade before her retirement at the end of 2008, is as Swedish as Ikea. And that is the exact reason Whan loves telling the story.
"It proves my point," he said. "To that guy, Annika was as American as you can get. The difference with Annika is we got to know her. She became part of our fabric."
With that lesson in mind, the LPGA is well on its way to redecorating with a different cut of cloth.
As the women's season-ending Titleholders tees off Thursday at Grand Cypress Resort and Golf Club, seven of the world's top 10 are non-Americans. Led by No. 1 Yani Tseng of Taiwan, six of the world's top 10 are Asian. Five of the top 15 are South Korean.
In 22 official LPGA events so far this year, there have been 18 international winners. Europe won the Solheim Cup.
These are not perfect numbers for nourishing an American fan base. With few exceptions, American fans prefer their sports stars home-grown. So do the American CEOs of potential corporate sponsors.
That has left Whan to field one tiring question: Without a dominant American player to inspire casual fan interest, and with potential corporate sponsors on a bread-and-water budgetary diet, how can women's golf hope to again prosper?
The LPGA is following the world economy, going global and willingly taking its chances as one of the single most international sports leagues on the planet. It could be wishful thinking, or it could be pure genius.
"We're definitely going into new markets," American veteran Pat Hurst said. "We've got to go where the sponsors are. The economy here has not been that good. So we are following where the economy is going. I hope we do get more domestic events, but if we do not, we are becoming a global tour."
The 2011 season showed 23 official events -- 10 outside the United States. The tour made stops in Thailand, Singapore, Japan, Paris, Malaysia, South Korea, Canada and Mexico. There was an unofficial event in Brazil and the Solheim Cup went to Ireland.
Of the tour's $41.7 million season purse, the LPGA reports that $17.5 million came from foreign corporations.
And when the 2012 schedule is announced in the coming weeks, although an increase in U.S. tournament sites is expected, much of the season will again be played abroad. Also, an Olympic-style world team event reportedly is in the works, an idea that would attract national passion and coverage.
"I want to be a global tour," Whan said. "I think we already are. I want to make sure our fans and sponsors and activities go around the world, but I want to be based in the U.S.
"This is our headquarters. We need a strong domestic footprint. That does not mean we need to play 32 times in America and leave three times. I'm not really sure you are creating a global game if that's what you are doing. We want the best Americans in the world to compete against the best players in the world every week."
A short time before Whan was hired, former LPGA commissioner Carolyn Bivens was demanding all players be able to speak English. Now, Whan is gently asking American players to learn a few words of Korean, Spanish, Japanese or Mandarin.
"I bet we've got 35 or 40 players right now learning another language," he said. "And that's not just Asian players learning English. It's plenty of other players learning other languages."
The conversation with Whan began with an inquiry regarding the tour's suddenly huge Asian influence. With such a large percentage of its top players from Asia, might a special effort make those players feel more a part of the tour?
Whan, however, quickly turned the subject around.
"That question comes from a very American-centric angle," he said. "We're working on tour to make sure all players feel comfortable wherever we play. We sit down together and talk about, next year we're going to Malaysia, Taiwan, Singapore and Bangkok. Let's talk about the cultures there. Let's talk about signing autographs there. Let's talk about how they feel about personal space. Let's talk about how to say 'thank you very much' or 'we sure appreciate this opportunity.'
"We teach American players how to do that. And European players. At the same time, we're helping players who are entering America from other locations on how to be comfortable playing here."
Although the growth potential is inviting, the travel is daunting -- and not just for the American players who not long ago were comfortable never needing a passport. Whether a player lives in the United States, South Korea, Australia or Japan, the schedule now plays no favorites.
Even Se Ri Pak, the first lady of South Korean golf who opened the door to the LPGA for her countrywomen by winning two majors in her 1998 rookie season, acknowledges the challenge.
"We understand the way of the economy all over the world," she said. "We've got more tournaments, that's a really good thing. But there is so much travel.
"Travel is the most difficult thing. You are taking so much luggage. You are living in hotels for three weeks at a time. That's the most difficult. It's not difficult playing the golf at different tournaments, but the travel is hard for you."
Japan's Ai Miyazato, a six-year LPGA veteran, sees it similarly.
"As an Asian, the tour going overseas, especially Asia, I really like that idea," she said. "Definitely it will be difficult to travel, but I feel it's tough to travel even inside the United States as well. I am very thankful there are tournaments, no matter where they are."
The commissioner understands. It may not be a perfect world, but the world will be the LPGA's playground. That's the way to grow.
"I've said this many times. There's no shortage of great American golfers on the LPGA Tour," Whan said. "If you were asked 25 years ago to name five, six great Americans you could have, and today I can rattle off Wie, Creamer, Kerr, Pressel, Lincicome without even hesitating.
"So there are still great American players. The great news is there's also a pretty good handful from all other corners of the world. As a result, we have television coverage worldwide, we have website coverage worldwide, we've got a fan base that's growing worldwide. And, importantly, my pool of potential sponsors now is as borderless as my player base."
Still, that nagging questions persists. For all the worldwide potential, the LPGA remains American-based and needs American fans. Whan answers by referring back to his letter-writing Sorenstam supporter.
"I've told this story many times," the commissioner said. "I remember sitting on my couch as a 10-year-old boy cheering for this Russian gymnast named Olga Korbut. I didn't like gymnastics. I certainly didn't follow women's gymnastics. I was born in the age of we didn't like the Russians.
"Everything about her should have been negative to me, but there I was with my father high-fiving for Olga Korbut. She didn't even speak the language very well. But we loved her. We got to know her.
"I've got 60-70 players who fit that mold. Ai Miyazato may be from Japan, but she's also got a house in California. She speaks perfect English. If you had a young daughter, you would want her to be like Ai Miyazato. You could put Na Yeon Choi on that same list. And by the same token, I'd say the same thing to a media person in Korea if they asked me about Stacy Lewis."
Whan thinks the world of them all.