Friday, December 17, 2010

Where Should the LPGA Go from Here? (or, There's Much More to the LPGA's Future Than Lexi Thompson)

Nearly one year into Michael Whan's tenure as LPGA Commissioner, it's far too soon to tell if his strategies for the tour will bear fruit, much less attempt to anticipate what we'll look back on as his legacy. But I've already spotted one trend that to my mind trumps media apathy, tv trouble, and even sponsor shakiness: the JLPGA's relative attractiveness for mid-level, near-elite, and elite LPGAers and signs that the LPGA may no longer be the tour of choice for the majority of the top golfers on other tours. On the one hand, it may just be that many of the LPGA's Asian players have decided to follow the European model for dual membership. But if "Golf's Global Tour" can't attract and keep the best female golfers on the planet, everyone on tour suffers.

On the bright side, there's something the LPGA can do about this troubling trend almost immediately. And there are longer-term strategies they can pursue, as well. Let's break it down.


First, I'd revise the LPGA's priority status list--which establishes criteria for membership on tour--as follows:

  • Reduce Category #1 from the top 80 on the previous season's money list to the top 70.
  • Change Category #7 so that any non-member who wins--amateur or pro, older or younger than 18--is eligible for full membership immediately or in the following season. [Updated 12/25/10 in light of comments.]
  • Expand Category #8 from the top 40 on the current season's money list to the top 50--as calculated after every 6 events rather than using the current 7-event interval.
  • Expand Category #9 from the top 5 on the previous season's Futures Tour money list to the top 10.
  • Change Category #10 from non-members who would have made the top 80 on the previous season's money list via their maximum 6 sponsor exemptions into domestic full-field non-major events into non-members who would have made the top 70 on the previous season's money list in their maximum 4 sponsor exemptions into domestic full-field non-major events and maximum 2 sponsor exemptions into international limited-field non-major events.  Any non-member who qualifies via this category is waived from having to meet the LPGA's minimum age requirement for membership.
  • Expand Category #11 to #71 to #90 on the previous season's money list and the top 30 players from the previous season's Q-School using the same shuffling system as already exists, except that the last 10 qualifiers from the Final Qualifying Tournament are listed after the top 20 have been shuffled in.
  • Adjust Categories #15 (from #101 to #125 to #91 to #120 on the previous season's money list), #16 (from #21 to #30 to #31 to #40 from the previous season's Final Qualifying Tournament), #17 (from #6 to #10 to #11 to #15 on the previous season's Futures Tour money list), and #20 accordingly (from #31 to #40 to #41 to #50 from the previous season's Final Qualifying Tournament).
Why?  Well, it just so happened that in 2010 those who made 6 figures finished in the top 70 on the money list, but the real reason for my 1st 2 proposed changes is to make it more challenging to retain your LPGA card based on your play in the previous season.  Even if you have strong priority status at the start of the season, you're going to have to be able to beat anyone playing well from formerly weaker positions on the priority status list who's leaped into Category #8.  But if you can't even finish in the top 95 on the money list and have to go to Q-School to get in via Category #11 that year or focus on the Futures Tour to get in via Category #9 the following year, then so be it.  Same goes for non-members trying for Category #10--you have to qualify for the equivalent of Category #1 based on your play in a limited (but more flexible) pallette of tournaments than members.  If you can't prove you're a world-beater that way, then suck it up and go to Futures Tour Q-School--or the JLPGA's, KLPGA's, or LET's--or try for the LPGA's Q-School.  If you're not yet ready or not yet old enough to do that, don't turn pro until you are.

And yes, that last comment is directed at Lexi Thompson's ridiculous proposal to be allowed 12 sponsor exemptions in the 2011 season and Ryan Ballengee's equally ridiculous call for Thompson to be granted full membership on tour via Commissioner fiat.  It's not that I'm against Lexi playing her way onto tour via my revised revisions to Category #7 and Category #10--or qualifying for Q-School via the paths I call for paving in the next section.  It's that I want to develop a system whereby a world-class phenom can seek out LPGA membership without needing special treatment.  And one whereby players who aren't hacking it on the LPGA are forced to play their way back in or develop their games elsewhere until they are ready to compete on the world's toughest women's tour.

Tournament Entry

So far, by encouraging more turnover, my proposals would make it easier for the best younger players to get into the LPGA.  But that alone won't do the trick.  To make sure the LPGA keeps attracting the world's finest female golfers, the LPGA has to offer more paths into its own Q-School.  Here are a few proposals that would help the tour accomplish just that:
  • Allow not only those who finished #11 to #20 on the current season's Futures Tour money list direct entry into the LPGA's Final Qualifying Tournament, but also anyone who finished on the top 5 in the previous season's money lists on the JLPGA, KLPGA, and LET or who is in the top 5 on their current money lists as of 2 weeks before the start of the Final Qualifying Tournament.
  • Offer anyone who finishes in the top 10 in the U.S. Women's Open or the Women's British Open direct entry into the LPGA's Final Qualifying Tournament.
  • Offer anyone who finishes in the top 5 in the Kraft Nabisco Championship, the LPGA Championship, the HSBC Women's Champions, or the Evian Masters direct entry into the LPGA's Final Qualifying Tournament.
  • Players who get into the Final Qualifying Tournament via any of these routes and who finish in its top 30 would be waived from the LPGA's minimum age requirement.
These changes would put the LPGA's Q-School closer to the JLPGA's, which features exemptions into several of its stages to encourage players from other tour's to try for JLPGA membership.  It would also give the LPGA a mechanism for allowing young phenoms to prove their performances against top fields weren't just flukes and play their way onto the LPGA via Q-School.  To make sure that top players from other tours get the same opportunities as young Americans who can secure sponsor exemptions into majors and high-status events, I'd offer 1 additional proposal:
  • Change entry criteria for the majors the LPGA controls and lobby those who control other majors to extend invitations to anyone in the top 50 of the Rolex Rankings as of 2 weeks before the start of the major into it, provided she has not already qualified by some other criterion.
Finally, I'd come up with a way to make the season-ending LPGA Tour Championship feel more like a big-time event.  I like the old ADT's process of qualifying via finishing high in a 1st-half or 2nd-half or overall money-list performance, for the ways it encourages players with dual membership to make the LPGA their primary tour, but I also like the idea that Whan floated about giving the top 3 finishers from each event (who haven't already qualified via a previous top 3) automatic entry into it, as well.  Why not combine the 2 ideas?


One nice benefit of releasing the LPGA schedule weeks after the JLPGA and LET have announced theirs is that the LPGA leadership still has a little time left to do the following things:
  • Make sure its Final Qualifying Tournament doesn't conflict with other Q-Schools and major season-ending events on other tours.
  • Do some last-minute negotiating with sponsors whose events conflict with majors and high-status events on other tours.
Although I can envision that every once in a while doing this down the road this might involve some scrambling for LPGA events whose dates have already been set, I think it could be justified on the grounds of increasing the likelihood that the LPGA field would be the strongest possible.  The need for scrambling could be reduced by more coordination between the top women's tours to increase co-sponsorships and avoid scheduling conflicts for their dual members.  This would take longer to accomplish, but I believe they're key to the future of women's professional golf:
  • Aim for 2 co-sponsored events--1 early-season and 1 mid-to-late season--with each of the major women's tours:  JLPGA, KLPGA, LET, and CLPGA.
  • Offer discounts to smaller-market/smaller-population venues in the United States to shore up the spring through summer segment of the schedule, with a focus on places that have been spurned by the PGA Tour or Champions Tour recently.
  • Put the entire weight of the LPGA behind Lorena Ochoa's attempt to get an event started in San Antonio (preferably at Oak Hills) and Annika Sorenstam one in Orlando.  Get Michelle Wie and Kimberly Kim doing for Hawaii what Ya Ni Tseng just accomplished for Taiwan.
  • Schedule off-weeks to coincide with majors and high-status events on other tours that dual members might want to compete in.
Why not offer to co-sponsor the ANZ Ladies Masters with the ALPG/LET, the LPGA's Thailand event with the JLPGA (thereby expanding it into a Mizuno Classic-sized event), help the KLPGA create a season-opening event for their tour co-sponsored with the LPGA (on the scale of the Hana Bank Championship), and (eventually) do the same for the CLPGA?  A 5-event Asian swing to start the season (including, of course, the HSBC Women's Champions as its climax) wouldn't be a problem if the Kia Classic and Kraft Nabisco Championship were moved back a few weeks to make room for it and for a full-field event in Hawaii to bridge East Asia and the West Coast.  Given that nobody would sign up to play the entire Asian swing, there'd be some opportunities for hungrier players lower on the priority list to get some starts and fill out their schedules by seeking ways into the LET's and/or JLPGA's February and March events before the Hawaiian event.

If the LPGA were to work with the JLPGA, KLPGA, LET, and CLPGA in this way across the entire schedule (here are my ideas for the late summer and fall), each tour would have room to expand domestically, each tour's top players would have motivation to maintain dual memberships, and there'd be more opportunities for mid- and lower-level players who were willing to play their way onto the LPGA from other tours.


Philip said...

Why is it desirable for the world's best golfers all to be members of the LPGA? To a non-American, there just isn't any reason for this assumption. Women's golf has a chance to break out of the U.S. centric strait jacket that just isn't working. There should be four majors: the U.S., British, Japanese and Korean Opens, and otherwise, as far as possible, the players should play on their home tours, where they can best connect with fans and develop the game in their own countries.

The Constructivist said...

Philip, I'll have to answer your great question in another post!

But let me ask a few questions in response to your statements:

1) You're saying Australians should stay on the ALPG, Chinese golfers on the CLPGA, and South American players should stay where exactly?

2) How would your proposal work? Tours should limit membership to approved citizenships and institute quotas on any other potential members? Sponsors should be encouraged to make it financially worthwhile for players to stay on their "home tours"?

3) What would happen to the LPGA in your model? If it's a North-American-centric tour, then it's going to have to merge with the Futures Tour just to have enough events for anything close to a full schedule. Is this desirable?

Mike said...

TC, I floated an idea a few weeks ago when they said Lexi was going to petition for membership. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts, since you know more about the Tour structure.

My idea was intended to stop the underage petitions entirely. If a young pro player made a given amount of money (or would have, assuming they're still amateurs) in their 6 sponsor exemptions, they would be granted a "mid-level status" that would allow them to play 9 or 10 events a year and, once they were old enough to become full members, they got a one-year exemption -- the one they would have gotten that first year, had they been old enough.

Would something like this even be plausible?

The Constructivist said...

Interesting, Mike, sort of like a probationary Category #10 membership until the player becomes old enough to claim the real thing?

Hmmm, the main thing I don't like about it is you get a multiple benefit from 1 year's performance. There are plenty of female teenagers who can't sustain the level of play that first got them convinced they were ready for the pro ranks (the struggles that Carly Booth and Clare Queen have been having lately on the LET come to mind--they're in danger of missing the 4-day cut at LET Q-School right now).

If you modified the idea so that a player with probationary status had to meet a certain standard the following year to extend it or graduate from it, I might like it better. But I'd still need to hear more about whether you think the LPGA's insistence that only domestic full-field events with cuts can count toward the winnings total makes sense.

Mike said...

I understand your dislike of that multiple benefit. I do think the player should have to meet a minimum benefit to keep the extra exemptions each year; that way they get used to competing to keep their card. (I didn't write that in simply because I was in a hurry when I left the comment.) Nobody wants to give them a free pass if they aren't playing well.

I wouldn't have a problem if, as long as they met the standard to keep their extra exemptions, they got a one-year exemption when they were old enough. But I think that membership is why they petition when they're so young, so the Tour needs to find a way to give them that membership if they're playing well enough and they accept the age rules. There's going to have to be some give somewhere by the Tour, don't you think? The LPGA needs to offer the kids something without giving them equal standing with the regular members, because you don't want to alienate either group.

As far as that "domestic cut" rule goes, that's just plain stupid -- especially since 2/3 of the LPGA schedule isn't domestic now. That's an old out-of-date rule that needs to change with the times. If it's part of the schedule -- like Evian -- it ought to count.

If they want to be a cutting edge tour, they can't make some rules for 2011 and some for 1911. Tradition and provincialism aren't the same thing. Do I sound crotchety enough? ;-)

The Constructivist said...

I'm with you on the domestic, full-field with cut (and sponsored by LPGA not USGA, I forgot to mention) fine print for category #10 being annoying, but I can see where the LPGA doesn't want someone who may have played out of their skull at the U.S. or British Open or at Evian getting in on basically 1 (potentially fluky) week. A little. I mean, how is that different from Q-School? Only problem for your model is, you can't get a sponsor exemption into the U.S. Women's Open, so your winnings there wouldn't count toward your total. That's true of mine, too, but I have a way to fix that, too.

My 4/2 adjustment attempts to catch up with the reality you described a bit, and I try to finesse the age requirement by waiving it if you would have made the top 70 on the money list in those events alone. I make up for excluding the U.S. Women's Open from counting above by giving a free pass to the final stage of Q-School if the player snags a top 10, giving her another chance for full membership, regardless of age. I don't think either of these ways in would alienate current members, because the bar is so high, anyone who meets it really earns her way in.

I think the only time they should allow petitions in is if someone were to turn 18 early in the season, like Pressel, Song, and Korda. I think anyone who wants to get in well before they turn 18 should have to meet a pretty high standard, golf-wise.

DaveAndrews said...

Very thoughtful piece. I don't have any great solutions (that's what they are paying Mike Whan the big bucks for).
As for Lexi Thompson, she has proven in multiple events that she has top tier ability for the LPGA tour. I predict she will do as well, or better, in 2011 in the events where she gets exemptions. If she and her family believe shee is old enough to be on the tour, the LPGA should make an exception in her case. She can help the tour more than it can help her by attracting more sponsor and fan interest in its events.

Mike said...

Ironically, I guess the age requirement is going to be a problem no matter what unless they simply do away with it. As long as a player can turn pro before they turn 18, all an age restriction does is give an excuse to the players they'd like to have to go somewhere else that doesn't care about their age.

Maybe the key to the Open/Evian problem is to limit the exemption for winning to a single year if you aren't already a Tour member. But if Hilary Lunke can keep playing because she won the Open, maybe the Tour shouldn't be so picky about giving credit for a good performance there. Nothing against Lunke -- winning an Open is no small feat -- but to say her situation is ok because she was already a Tour member when Lexi gets no credit at all seems a bit weak to me.

Lexi's gonna end up being the poster child for this problem, isn't she? ;-)

The Constructivist said...

I think Lunke has extended the normal 5 years you get for a major win from medical exemptions. If an underage golfer--amateur or pro--or non-member pro can win a major, she should be eligible for LPGA membership under the non-winners' category. My reward--free pass to the final stage of Q-School--is not enough of one for that feat!

I think the LET is the only tour without an age restriction. The JLPGA requires you to be 18 by a certain date to enter Q-School (so I guess the only way in is to win as an amateur like Ai Miyazato did), and I think the KLPGA has one (I believe at 16) after Seon Hwa Lee turned pro at 14 and joined at 15. (This is fuzzy recall from a Seoul thread.)

Bottom line is, I think you can make a strong case for doing away with the age requirement--but as long as you have one, you may as well have a better system for waiving it than the case-by-case petition method. I think my ideas provide a framework for crafting this.

Jim C said...

Nancy Lopez got in through a June Q School when they had two Q Schools per year. In the absence of a June Q School I would like to see a way to add a couple of top players when school ends midyear. Perhaps the commissioner can be given the power to add up to three graduates who were amateurs the first of the year--or something like that. Someone like Stacey Lewis could move directly from school to the LPGA.