By Mary Armstrong – published in the Las Cruces Sun News – 4/22/2011
I’ve waxed extensively in this column about the woes of the LPGA. And just about everyone agrees that the 40 year-old tour will never be the same. No amount of tribute to LPGA icons such as Kathy Whitworth, Nancy Lopez, Mickey Wright, Patty Berg or Babe Zaharias will return the tour to its pinnacle. As Rick Pitino said when the Boston Celtics were faltering under his coaching, “Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish are not coming through that (locker room) door.”
Last month, Golf Digest’s Ron Sirak came up with a potential solution – if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. In comparison to the LPGA Tour, the PGA Tour has a much more experienced and perhaps more capable stable of professionals that are able to make things happen when it comes to building new events and retaining current ones. I recently called the LPGA home offices to talk with someone about sponsorships. I had forgotten about the time difference and reached them perhaps an hour after normal business hours. Not only could I not find anyone to talk to, their system wouldn’t even allow me to leave a voice message.
The benefits of a merger are significant – as they are with most businesses. Among them are greater efficiency in staff, wider range of clients (sponsors) available to the company, and more opportunities to reach other markets. However there is one particularly attractive element that a merger deal could bring for the Ladies tour. The PGA and LPGA recently signed long-term contracts with the Golf Channel. Currently, this is a serious problem for the LPGA because the Golf Channel has chosen to televise most of the PGA, Champions, and Nationwide Tour events ahead of the LPGA. Consequently, most women’s tour events are “tape-delayed”. On top of that, and unlike the PGA’s agreement, Carolyn Bivens, the former commissioner, committed the LPGA to paying all of the Golf Channel’s production costs for each tournament. About half is passed on to the tournament sponsors, but the LPGA is still on the hook for about $270,000 for each event. All for what is usually a delayed telecast. Presumably a merger would mean that would disappear.
This isn’t the first time a merger has been discussed, and both sides say there have been no formal meetings. However, this may be THE time. Previous vocal opponents from the PGA side are no longer a factor, and the PGA has been looking for creative formats to freshen up the stale 72-hole stroke-play events week after week. The PGA would also gain control of the LPGA scheduling, which could eliminate occasional conflicts for fans. Current PGA tournament sponsors could chip in a fraction of what a PGA event would cost for a Ladies tournament. As it stands now, a total LPGA tournament purse amounts to just slightly more than the typical PGA winner’s paycheck each week.
And there are lots of possibilities for getting creative. Sirak suggests one tournament that alternates groups of men and women, playing from their respective tees – essentially two tournaments in one. I’m thinking in terms of two tournaments at the same site in a single week. Think of the savings a single venue could produce with half the setup costs for the tour and for television! The women could go first from Monday through Wednesday and then the men could play their four rounds the rest of the week. Of course there are always the potential for a man to team up with a woman for 4-ball events or 2-person best balls and such. The ultimate fun might be a “battle of the sexes” in which the men and women compete individually from appropriately located tees.
One thing is clear: the women are not in a power position. While I would not like to see the women “under the thumb” of the guys, there doesn’t appear to be much choice if a United States based women’s tour is to persevere. However, equality and fairness in person to person dealings should not be about business. If the PGA wants the LPGA, I hope they recognize that treating the women players like “red-headed stepchildren” will only tarnish the PGA’s reputation and marketability.
A golf architect in New Hampshire for over 20 years, Armstrong brought her craft to Las Cruces in January 2010. She is the founder of Armstrong Golf Architects, which provides planning, designing, permitting and construction monitoring services for golf course projects. You can comment on her writing and view past articles at her blog: https://roadholeshorts17.wordpress.com/.