Friday, June 25, 2010

What Is It with North American Golf Writers, Anyway?

Lorne Rubenstein has a talent for taking each positive the LPGA Tour has going for it and framing it as a negative. The LPGA is the best tour in women's golf, attracting the top golfers from around the world (except for a few who decide to play only in Japan). It features the closest and toughest competition of any professional tour, with nearly half the field having a legitimate shot at victory every week they play. And five players--Ai Miyazato, Ji-Yai Shin, Ya Ni Tseng, Suzann Pettersen, and Cristie Kerr--have broken away from the lead chase pack and will probably be trading the #1 spot in the world rankings all year and duking it out for Player of the Year. All of them have great personalities, interesting back stories, and devoted fan bases. It's like a season-long pennant race, but where it's hard to root against any team. What's not to love about where the LPGA is now?

According to Rubenstein, lots. What a niche sport like the LPGA needs, in his view, is a dominant superstar whom "the masses" can identify with like Annika or Lorena. And apparently Rubenstein is going to stamp his feet, whine, and pout until Michelle Wie or Paula Creamer fulfills that role.

The bottom line is that somebody has to emerge, and it would be best for the LPGA Tour if that were an American player.

This from a guy who can't even be bothered to spell Miyazato's name correctly. Why does anyone listen to this nonsense? How can "the masses" be expected to identify with the LPGA's new global superstars if golf writers can't be bothered to make the effort to do so themselves? Isn't their job to report on what's actually happening, not what they wish were happening? Shouldn't their writing draw, even compel, interest and attention, no matter who is demonstrating excellence in the sport they're covering?

I've been asking myself these questions for a long time, because obviously Rubenstein isn't alone in thinking and acting this way, so when I recognized USA Today's Steve DiMeglio during the rain delay on Tuesday morning at Locust Hill and realized he was just as trapped in the media tent as I was until the storm ended, I took the opportunity to get his take on these issues. DiMeglio's an absolute pro. His profile of Ai Miyazato is the best single story I have ever seen on her and his take on the best on tour without a major was excellent.

Not only is he deeply knowledgeable and passionate about the LPGA, but he also holds forth on one of the biggest stages in golf writing, so I first wanted to find out how he deals with the pressure to boil down all he knows about the state of the LPGA to the biggest stories, the ones that will get the most people's attention. He replied,

It's been tougher because of the cutback in space, so there's not as much opportunity any more to write as much--PGA Tour or LPGA Tour. I don't think it's rocket science. Obviously the biggest story coming into this week is Ai Miyazato. We'll concentrate on her--I'm writing a big piece on her for Thursday. It's a major championship, that's big. How the course will play--the course part. And if you look at the weather forecast, that's going to play a part. I imagine I'll probably write for Friday's paper about how they deal with the weather delays: the course is going to be wet, the rough is going to be wetter, so....

He was obviously bothered by the space issue, because he interrupted his own train of thought to return to it:

Unfortunately, there isn't more space to write on the LPGA, because they deserve it. If you're a golfer and your handicap is anything higher than a 10, you can learn more from watching women--the best women players in the world--than you can from watching the men--the best men players in the world. The swings out here aren't going 120 and that's what most people who can't break 100 should be doing, slowing their swings down. Plus they're the most successful athletes I've ever been around, they're the most forthcoming, they'll sign more autographs and pictures in one day than most players outside of Phil Mickelson will in a week.

So I asked him what needs to change for the LPGA to get more space and command more attention. His reply was very interesting:

That's a tough one. The only person that moves the needle, unfortunately--not unfortunately because it's her, but because nobody else is doing it--the tour right now could use Michelle Wie to win 5 straight, or 4 out of 5, or at least be in contention in the last group every week. Right or wrong, and I think it's wrong--again, not because of who she is, but because there are other players out here that should be getting the attention, a lot more attention--but right now the LPGA tour could use an extended uptick in the economy and Michelle Wie to win 4 or 5.

I followed up on his own qualifications, admitting that I've been one of many criticizing the overfocus on Wie. He was all over that one:

We get criticized. You know, "Why do you always write Michelle Wie? Why do you always cover her?" Well, whenever we put a story on Michelle Wie on the website, it gets 50 to 100 times more hits than any other story we put on an LPGA player.

I acknowledged that here at Mostly Harmless, the only player who's ever moved the needle more than Wie was Cheyenne Woods, specifically when I was the 1st to make easily searchable the news that she had gotten a sponsor exemption into the Wegmans. DiMeglio pointed out that that was "Because of Woods. Because of Tiger." Our conversation then turned to alternate audiences and media. When I suggested the LPGA should focus its efforts on growing fans among girls, he replied, "TV ratings are driven by adults. And most male adults will only watch Michelle Wie." When I suggested that TV may not be the answer for the LPGA, that streaming video online might make more sense, he pointed to the digital divide and the fact that "nobody reads the internet on Saturdays--our traffic just..." and he made the plane-going-down-in-flames gesture. A la carte cable? "Ain't coming."

In short, DiMeglio is so tied to a system where success is measured by hits and ratings that he can't imagine any other system emerging. Maybe it's just because I taught Amanda Lotz's The Television Will Be Revolutionized so recently that I'm thinking differently. Or maybe it's because my livelihood isn't dependent on my golf writing that I can afford to wait for the records of the LPGA's Young Guns and New Blood generations to speak for themselves.

Because in one sense, Rubenstein and DiMeglio's prescription for the LPGA is dead on. If a dominant American superstar were to emerge on tour this season, the attention she would garner in the United States would have more than a trickle-down effect: once there were a spotlight on the LPGA, then it could be moved around, widened, and so on. Right now the golfy media must feel like they're stumbling around in the dark, hoping to find even a candle. Pros like DiMeglio and Randall Mell will soldier on and do their part to strike up some sparks, while in their weaker moments folks like Rubenstein and Sal Maiorana will vent about how unpleasant it feels to be in the dark.

When I get to Locust Hill later this morning, I want to talk to some of the Japanese media to find out their take on all this, and follow up with DiMeglio and Maiorana. More later!


The Florida Masochist said...

Rubenstein's column has a couple of other problems besides the things you pointed out.

1- JiYai Shin won 3 times last year not two times

2- Michelle Wie wasn't the only undefeated American at the Solheim Cup. Morgan Pressel went 2-0-1, and her halve was a match she teamed with Wie.

Mike said...

Check out this link when you have time, TC:

and especially the link inside to a post called "Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable." I think you'll find a fellow iconoclast there. Change is never seen by the big businesses built around "the way things are" because it costs too much to change.

Big names dominate the public's interest because the media made them big names -- not demeaning their talent by any means, but if a name shows up everyday, then that's a name people care about. And if you miss a day or two, no big deal; there will be more news about them tomorrow.

Streaming video will work -- it just won't work for the powers-that-be because it won't meet their profit requirements. (That's also a point in that post I mentioned.)

And just to toot my own horn, I've been saying that weekend players can learn more from the LPGA than the PGA for quite a while.