Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Paging Shane Bacon

I usually reserve this kind of title for established golf journalists who write a boneheaded column, but Shane Bacon really brought teh stupid yesterday over at Golf Fanhouse, so he can join Ron Sirak, Steve Elling, Gary Van Sickle, and Jason Sobel in the Mostly Harmless hall of shame.

Psssst, Shane, the LPGA Season Isn't Over! When your 1st 3 words--"It's golf's offseason"--are wrong, wrong, and wrong, maybe it's time to rethink the premise of your piece. Let's put aside the face that the PGA Tour's season is not yet over and that the WGC-HSBC Champions tournament this week is the Biggest. Tournament. In. Asia. Ever. If missing Tiger vs. Phil isn't bad enough, Bacon doesn't even bother to take a look at the schedule of the tour he's purportedly analyzing. The LPGA season is in full pennant race mode, with defending champion Ji-Yai Shin facing off against Ai Miyazato, who's hoping that a 2-week rest and home-country advantage in this week's Mizuno Classic will help her overtake Shin in the races for money list and scoring titles, not to mention a little something called Player of the Year. After that, the other 2 top contenders for these titles, Lorena Ochoa and Cristie Kerr, get home-country advantage in turn in the last 2 events of the season. This is the kind of photo finish the guys wish they could manage. Imagine if Tiger, Phil, Sergio, and Padraig were this close with 3 events to go....

Hey, Buddy, the LPGA Has Plenty of Marketable Stars! Bacon is hung up on the idea of a female Tiger:

Plain and simple ... the superstars on the golf course aren't the same superstars that companies are turning to. It's confusing the fan base. It's making it strange to see no-name golfers hold the trophy. The LPGA is in need of a marketable superstar.

That Wie girl he talks about as if her season were over? She's playing in Lorena's tournament next week and is eligible to play in Houston the week after. That 1st win everyone's been waiting for could still happen this season.

How about the player who beat her in the Rookie of the Year race? Ji-Yai Shin may end up being the biggest thing to hit the LPGA since Nancy Lopez. She almost single-handedly turned the KLPGA from a dozen-event mini-tour to the 3rd-best women's tour on the planet as she racked up a couple of dozen wins in a few short seasons there. Only in America could she be dismissed as one of a slew of nameless, faceless "tournament-winning golfers with no appeal." Yeah, I know Shane ranks Shin with Angela Stanford as players known to "serious golf fans" only, but that's certainly not true of her fan base in Korea. Nor is it true of In-Kyung Kim, Na Yeon Choi, Eun-Hee Ji, or Song-Hee Kim.

Same goes for Ai Miyazato, Sakura Yokomine, and Shinobu Moromizato, the 3 Japanese players from the Rolex Top 20, of which Shane claims, "Fans are familiar with about 20 percent of that list, and have no clue about the other players." Maybe that's true of American fans, but let's try the google test he uses on Michelle Wie and Suzann Pettersen on the Japanese trio. If you search "Ai Miyazato" in English and Japanese, she ends up with just shy of a million hits. Yokomine? Over 650K. Moromizato? Around 400K. And that doesn't come close to capturing the attention that Japanese TV lavishes on Ai-sama, Momoko Ueda, Shiho Oyama, and Mika Miyazato on the LPGA or Yokomine, Moromizato, Miho Koga, Chie Arimura, and the rest of the Japanese and Korean superstars on the JLPGA.

So, yeah, the LPGA is definitely a niche sport in the U.S. But it has mass appeal in Korea, Japan, and Taiwan (where Ya Ni Tseng is from). Top Americans like Paula Creamer, Cristie Kerr, Angela Stanford, and Michelle Wie aren't going away any time soon. If Natalie Gulbis and Jane Park can get their backs healed up, they could join those ranks as soon as next season. Sure, Americans love winners, and although Kerr and Creamer have won a lot, they're no Tiger and Phil. But Americans also like underdogs. Christina Kim, Brittany Lang, and Kristy McPherson have already stepped it up on a global stage in the Solheim Cup. If Michael Whan is as smart as I've heard he is, he'll find a way to globalize it. International team match play is a great way to showcase the best women golfers in the world and help American fans connect Asian names and faces.

But, there's no need to wait for that to happen. Every week on the LPGA global superstars, national heroes, and up-and-coming youngsters are battling it out. Maybe 1 "marquee player" will emerge from this cauldron of competition and connect with the "generic viewer." Maybe not. But shooting for the lowest common denominator in the U.S. is a no-win proposition for the LPGA. The tour's issue is not just marketing: it's about finding new ways to reach out to people who aren't yet fans, to share the great stories on tour, to let the players' personalities shine through on the course and via social media--and, above all, to find ways to keep enticing the best female players on the planet to make the LPGA their tour of choice.

[Update 1 (5:41 pm): Brent Kelley reports that not only will Michelle Wie play the last 2 LPGA events, she'll also play in the LET's season-ending Dubai event. Ryan Ballengee explains why American guys will catch up with American gals when it comes to playing abroad. And he focuses on the LPGA's POY race.]

[Update 2 (11/5/09, 5:38 am): Nice interview with Natalie Gulbis from the Armchair Golfer. She explains why she skipped Korea last week and is sitting out the Asian swing and gives guarded answers on the state of her back.]

[Update 3 (11/14/09, 11:10 am): To give Shane credit, he's done some good writing on his experiences looping for Erica Blasberg earlier this season. And he'll get another chance to caddie for her and write about it in Houston next week!]

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