RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif., April 2 - There is nothing wrong with the LPGA Tour that cannot be fixed. Just get Tiger Woods to retire. Five years ago, only four of the 40 tournaments on the LPGA schedule offered prize money of at least $1 million. This year, the average purse is nearly $1.2 million, and all but six tournaments are worth at least $1 million.
Golf courses are better. Players are more talented. Fields are deeper. The Solheim Cup has become spirited and controversial.
So why is there a perception that the LPGA Tour is in dire need of repair?
Because the comparisons have never been greater.
Attribute that to Tigermania, an incredible swell that lifted the PGA Tour to new heights and crushed the LPGA Tour like a tidal wave.
“I don’t think the comparisons would be as strong if there had been no Tiger on the scene,” LPGA commissioner Ty Votaw said. “You’ve got somebody who eclipses not only LPGA members, but his own members. That’s why we’re trying to shift the debate away from comparing us to the PGA Tour.”
There has always been a substantial gap between the PGA and LPGA, only it was never this obvious. Ten years ago, the PGA Tour played for total prize money of $49.3 million, more than double the $21.3 million on the LPGA Tour that year.
Then along came Tiger, and the disparity was too much to ignore.
A month after Woods became the youngest Masters champion in 1997 with a 12-stroke victory that put golf on the front page, the PGA Tour negotiated a new television deal worth about $500 million.
This is the final year of that contract, and PGA Tour purses are topping out at over $200 million. Prize money on the LPGA Tour is pushing $37 million.
Sorenstam has won two of the four LPGA events this year, including a major, and leads the money list with $472,005. That would rank 38th on the PGA Tour money list, just ahead of David Berganio.
“If the PGA didn’t have Tiger, I don’t think people would be throwing as much money that way,” Juli Inkster said. “Believe me, they’re all very impressive players. But Tiger has got that charisma, and he carries himself and that tour very well.”
The impact goes beyond money.
The LPGA Tour is criticized at times for being uninteresting, lacking in personality and star power. Funny, but those were the same complaints the PGA Tour faced last year during that stretch after the Masters when Woods didn’t play.
“Tiger has been a factor both good and bad,” Votaw said. “He’s brought a lot more attention to the game of golf. And he has taken a certain amount of white-hot media heat away from everyone.”
It’s not just the LPGA Tour.
The Senior PGA Tour reached an all-time low last year in television ratings. Its stars were Allen Doyle, Bruce Fleisher and Hale Irwin, hardly an exciting personality even when he won three U.S. Opens.
Suddenly, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem sounded a lot like Votaw.
“What we need is for people to stop comparing the senior tour to the PGA Tour,” he said last year at the Tour Championship in Houston.
While the senior tour held a press conference to announce changes aimed at attracting more fans, the LPGA Tour held a three-day summit in Phoenix attended by every player under the threat of a $10,000 fine.
Votaw rolled out a five-year plan with hopes of increasing TV ratings and galleries.
The centerpiece was an initiative called “Fans First,” making the players aware of who foots the bill. He asked them to polish the five points of celebrity - performance, passion, relevance, appearance and approachability.
Webb was on her way to the putting green at Mission Hills when she stopped to sign autographs and pose for pictures.
“FF. Way to go!” Meg Mallon said with a laugh, alluding to the “Fans First” policy.
Liselotte Neumann hit only four fairways through the first 12 holes and later joked, “I was spending more time with the crowd than inside the ropes - being very fan friendly.”
At least they’re trying, although there is no easy solution.
What if Nancy Lopez could be a rookie again?
The most dynamic personality in LPGA history, she energized women’s golf in 1977 with a flashy smile, charm and five straight victories.
But if Tiger Woods had been around back then, would anyone have noticed?
© 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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