Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Where in the World Are the LPGA's Big Guns?

Why are Cristie Kerr and Paula Creamer the only players among the LPGA's biggest guns who have committed to the CVS/pharmacy LPGA Challenge, which Hound Dog projects to have the weakest field on tour in 2 years? Given that the season-long races for the money-list title, the Vare Trophy (for lowest scoring average), and Player of the Year are so close--and are worth Hall of Fame points--why would the players in the thick of those races choose to be somewhere else this week? Certainly, where to play is a personal decision and we can't know all the reasons why someone would skip a tournament. But we can speculate about some of the factors that go into such a decision--and their implications for the LPGA.

For some players, injuries or off-course commitments might play a role. Hence, Suzann Pettersen (the '07 champion) may have decided that her hip needed extra time off to maximize her chances of being at her best on the Asian Swing. Michelle Wie might not have been able to get away from her classes at Stanford. (Maybe she's getting study-abroad credit for the Malaysia event--and possibly others on the Asian Swing?)

For other players, the lure of competing events on other tours--and the chance to deal with jet lag against not-quite-as-LPGA-toughened competition so as to be relatively acclimated, time-zone-wise, for the LPGA's Asian Swing--might be too hard to pass up. Perhaps that's why Song-Hee Kim is being joined on the KLPGA's 3rd major, the Hite Cup, by (at least) Se Ri Pak (who won the CVS before it was the CVS, back when it was the Twelve Bridges), Eun-Hee Ji, Sun Young Yoo, Soo Yun Kang, Joo Mi Kim, Kyeong Bae, and Hye Jung Choi (as well as Mi-Jeong Jeon from the JLPGA), at least for the 1st 4 players on this list, who did get into the Malaysia event. Meanwhile, the JLPGA's 82-player Fujitsu Ladies features Ji-Yai Shin alongside Shiho Oyama (who's making her comeback from elbow surgery exclusively on the JLPGA), Young Kim (who gave up LPGA membership this year for JLPGA membership), and Tamie Durdin (who's fighting to avoid losing her JLPGA card), but not Ai Miyazato, Inbee Park, Momoko Ueda, or Mika Miyazato.

It appears, then, that a large number of the LPGA's biggest guns this year have decided to make this week a rest or travel week. If it turns out that there aren't any more LPGAers in the Hite Cup field, it seems that Na Yeon Choi, Ya Ni Tseng (who apparently never left Asia after the Japan Women's Open), and In-Kyung Kim (the '08 Longs Drugs champion) are joining Pettersen, Wie, Miyazato, and Park in saving their energy for the start of the LPGA's Asian Swing. Given that Lorena's invitational would be their 4th event in a row after the Asian Swing--and that its high altitude exacerbates the physical and mental challenges associated with jet lag--that might not be such a bad idea. From this perspective, then, the only real question is which event Kerr will sit out between now and then to avoid playing 6 weeks in a row.

So skipping the CVS event makes a certain kind of sense. But with the LPGA searching for a new sponsor for its Northern California stop for 2011 and beyond, perhaps this provides an opportunity to rethink its approach to its late summer and fall schedule. Mind you, what I envision would take a lot of work and a lot of coordination, but I think it would give the best players in the world more of an incentive to make the LPGA their home tour.

Instead of scattering North American events through the late summer and fall, I'd like to see them concentrated after the European and Asian swings. There are several reasons for this. First, it would allow for simpler travel schedules. Players would travel from the East Coast of the U.S. to Europe, Asia, and then the West Coast of the U.S. and finally eastwards, instead of figuring out how to zig-zag across the Pacific at the end of the season. Second, it would allow for the synchronization and consolidation of the 2 most important team international competitions in women's golf, the Solheim Cup and the Kyoraku/Pinx Cup. A week could be set aside in August for both USA/EU and Japan/Korea events to take place simultaneously in even-numbered years and the winners and losers to face off in odd-numbered years. Yes, this would take rearranging and coordination of the LPGA's, LET's, JLPGA's, and KLPGA's schedules, but many tours have already built in a mid-summer break around the Women's British Open anyway, so it wouldn't be that hard to do. Furthermore, it would allow the weather to be less of a factor in the LPGA's Asian Swing events (especially in Korea!) that would follow on it and allow for the LET's season-ending Asian Swing to be the biggest game in town at that time of year, rather than 2nd fiddle to the LPGA's. Third, moving the Asian Swing earlier would help build momentum for turning every event on it into a full-field tournament with cuts. This would be good for both LPGA and other tours' members, as most non-LPGA events usually have much smaller fields than the LPGA's. Instead of being a privilege only for the top players on each tour, co-sponsored events could start with fields on the order of 150 players.

Fourth--and most important for American fans, media, and sponsors--the concentration of LPGA events in North America from September through November with everything at stake for both the top golfers and those fighting to keep their cards as the tour sweeps from the West Coast (Safeway, post-CVS, Lorena's invitational, sometimes the Canadian Women's Open--and is it too much to hope for a Hawaii event to kick off the return to the States?) to Middle America (NW Arkansas, maybe San Antonio, maybe 1 or 2 of the spring and early summer MW events would want to move to the fall, as well?) and finally to the Southeast (Navistar, Tour Championship, maybe another Florida event to precede it?) would bring consistency, drama, and momentum to the season finale.

I believe that having a coherent plan for the LPGA schedule--one that faces up to the realities of weather and travel and that addresses the needs of other tours--would do much to encourage sponsors, here as well as in Asia, to hitch their stars to the top women's tour in the world. Looking at the LPGA's season as a whole, then, I envision it comprising 2 parts, each starting internationally and ending in the States, although I recognize that a good part of my vision for the 1st part might need revision. The point for me isn't the specific sequence of events I envision, but the principle that for the LPGA to keep being the place where the best female golfers in the world face off on a regular basis, it must seek to accommodate its best players, many of whom will of necessity be keeping or seeking dual memberships, at least until the LPGA schedule recovers.

[Update 1 (5:15 pm): For all those who decry the presence of Asians on the LPGA, take a look at what kind of tournament preview you get from LPGA.com without any of the hottest players from Asia in the event. Be careful what you wish for!]


Mike said...

After the 3-week layoff, Kerr may have decided to play straight through and take advantage of the other players' rest weeks. She's so close in all the races, it could give her a sizable advantage.

The Constructivist said...

Good point--plenty of time to rest for the final LPGA event, while Shin and Miyazato (and maybe Tseng) will be playing the Ricoh Cup in Japan the week before....

diane said...

Paula grew up literally 15 minutes from the tournament site, so this is a home game for her.

I was hoping Michelle would cut class and make the 40-minute drive from Palo Alto to Danville.

The Constructivist said...

That's why I picked her to win in my preview, Diane!