LPGA in Crisis
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This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.
For women, golf was the fist successful professional sport in this country. Just on the heels of World War II, former track Olympian Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Patty Berg and Louise Suggs may have had to organize their tournaments themselves, but they became household names and set the stage for the first accepted sport where women could make a living playing their passion.
Golf teed off in the 1940's and has grown by leaps and bounds ever since…until now. Several of the top players staged a revolt last week and ousted their Commissioner, Carolyn Bivens. The tour has lost seven tournaments since 2007. Only ten events are secure for next year. Sponsors are dropping at an alarming rate. What in the world has happened to the cornerstone sport for women?
There were 21 pro events in the 50's, 34 events in the 60's, and by the 70's the popularity of the women's game drew sponsors to the tune of $4.4 million in yearly purses. Galleries packed the big tournaments to catch a glimpse of blue-collar Texan Nancy Lopez, pin-up model Jan Stephenson and lively personality Amy Alcott. Television ratings soared and women golfers became the darlings of corporate America. By the 80's, the annual tour prize money climbed up to $14 million.
For those first 50 years, the women's pro tour was an American affair. The Hall of Fame players were big personalities and created nail-biting drama weekend after weekend. By 1990, the widely televised multi-million-dollar tour drew global interest and the game expanded around the world.
The ultra star foreigner, of course, was Annika Sorenstam. From her rookie year of ‘93 to her retirement last year, the popular Swede took ten Major Titles and cashed in $22,5000 in prize money.
In the midst of Annika's sparkling career, another foreigner burst on the scene. Se Ri Pak from South Korea first appeared in 1998 and quickly built a Hall of Fame career herself. Many a Korean set an alarm clock for 3am to watch Pak finesse her magical putter in U.S. tournaments.
Today, of the 121 international players on tour, 45 of them are Korean. Eight of the top 20 moneymakers on tour this year are Korean. Three dozen South Koreans are competing this year on the LPGA's development circuit. This is usually an exciting phenomenon in sports, when a tidal wave of talent flows from the inspiration of one player, such as Brazilian soccer stars following Pelé. But, racist as it sounds, it is in fact not racist to say that the Korean wave is not doing the LPGA any good at the moment.
Carolyn Bivens, aside from the tough economy, had a mighty tough sell on her hands. What would you do if your US Open champ couldn't conduct her winner's interview in English, as happened with Eun Hee Ji this past weekend? What if five of your ten Open finishers were Korean and basically couldn't schmooze in the important pre-tournament pro-am because they needed interpreters?
Bivens was raked over the coals last fall when she mandated that all LPGA players must be able to conduct their business in English. The proposal was quickly nixed. But for the first time since 1944, women's golf has no marketable star. We know by now that the draw in sports is not glorious play unto itself. Baseball needs Derek Jeter. Tennis needs Serena Williams. And women's golf desperately needs a couple of stars at the top who can not only guide a sweet fade off the tee, but who can charm us and entertain us. Bivens was crucified for her all-English proposal but the truth is she was on the right track.
This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.
Banner image: Eun Hee Ji of South Korea is sprayed with champagne by Paul Park of Hana Bank after her one-stroke victory at the 2009 US Women's Open at the Saucon Valley Country Club in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images