Friday, January 7, 2011

Reflections on the 2011 LPGA Schedule

I was primed to join in the tail end of the feeding frenzy over the (partially botched) timing of the release of the 2011 LPGA schedule, but now that I've seen it and had a little while to think about what's in it and when, I have to admit that there's more to like about it than I expected to find. Sure, it's probable that the paucity of early official announcements by tournament organizers and glut of leaks about the likely shape of the schedule were an exercise in expectation-lowering, but what they also did was make me more attuned to the more subtle changes from last year's schedule.

Overviews by Beth Ann Baldry, Ryan Ballengee, Emily Kay, Stephanie Wei, Jeff Shain, and Steve DiMeglio cover the major changes well: the addition of new tournaments in Phoenix, Taiwan, and China; the switch from the LPGA Championship to the Titleholders format; and the compressing of the schedule to avoid the many long gaps in the 2010 season. Since so many people have already begun debating the "play for charity" model in Phoenix, I'll address that first, but what I really want to focus on here are some of the benefits of schedule compression.

I missed Beth Ann Baldry's preview of the Founders event in Phoenix because we finally closed on our home sale/purchase on Monday and have been furiously preparing ever since for our move from Dunkirk to Hamburg a couple of Saturdays away, so it came as a big surprise to me when I 1st saw it on the schedule. Geoff Shackelford has come out strongly against its "play for free" model while Mike Southern seems more intrigued by it, but for me the bottom line is if it helped bring the LPGA back to Phoenix and can generate some buzz for the tour's '11 U.S. premiere while still attracting a strong field, I'm willing to give it a chance.

As for the likely strength of field of this and other events, I'm pretty confident the LPGA took some good steps in the right direction on this front for this year's schedule. While the schedule itself is nowhere close to my ideal--in a nutshell, having the LPGA circumnavigate the glove via a pair of eastward runs each season, one in the winter and the spring from an expanded Asian/Pacific swing (including Australia and Hawaii) to North America, the other in the summer and fall from the European swing and an earlier Asian swing to Hawaii and back to North America for the run-up to the season finale--it has plenty of incentives for the top players in the world to keep making the LPGA their primary tour.

Consider the winter and spring: any LPGAer with LET or JLPGA membership (or, like Ji-Yai Shin and Ai Miyazato, both) can put together a pretty full schedule, simply by adding in events on the other tour to complement their LPGA starts. But the paucity of LPGA events raises the question: why should someone with JLPGA or LET membership make the LPGA her primary tour in the early part of the season? Putting aside the fact that for Shin and Miyazato there are virtually no required off-weeks all season (except for the Solheim Cup), everyone with dual LPGA-JLPGA membership could decide not to leave the Asia-Pacific region except for a brief 3-event West Coast run in March and not return to the States until the ShopRite in early June. They could go even further, in fact, and only add in the LPGA majors, Asian swing events, and a few other convenient big-money events to what's essentially a JLPGA-based schedule. Why play for free in Phoenix in March when they could start the year with the 1st 2 LPGA events in February and the 1st 3 JLPGA events in March for a nice 5-event run with minimal travel to kick off the season?

Well, for one thing, given how few events there are on the LPGA in the 1st place, what they'd be doing by skipping the chance for LPGA money-list advancement and greater world-ranking points in Phoenix would be hurting their chances to end the season atop the LPGA money list and Rolex Rankings. You can bet that Na Yeon Choi, Ya Ni Tseng, Cristie Kerr, Paula Creamer, Song-Hee Kim, Morgan Pressel, Amy Yang, Mika Miyazato, Angela Stanford, Jee Young Lee, Stacy Lewis, and maybe even Michelle Wie (among others from 2010's top 30 on the money list who are exclusively LPGA members) will be aiming to maximize their LPGA starts in 2011. And even those with dual LPGA-LET membership--like Suzann Pettersen, In-Kyung Kim, Anna Nordqvist, Christina Kim, and Azahara Munoz--won't have any temptation to forsake the LPGA for the LET, given that the LET's spring is even scantier than the LPGA's. No, for them, it's a 4-event run in February, half on the LET and half on the LPGA, to start their seasons, then they're stuck with the rest of the on-again, off-again LPGA spring schedule. Why would they create a 3-week gap in their schedules by skipping Phoenix, particularly when they have a 3-week gap right after the Kraft Nabisco Championship? Nope, elite LPGA members and LPGA-LET members will be playing a full winter and spring schedule, with a possible skip in Tres Marias or Mobile. But all of them have to be aware that it was the fact that Na Yeon Choi played 23 LPGA events versus Ji-Yai Shin's 19 that allowed her to come out on top of the 2010 money list. And if LPGA-JLPGA members Shin, Miyazato, Inbee Park, Momoko Ueda, Hee Young Park, Shanshan Feng, Shiho Oyama, Meena Lee, and others have any designs on being there in 2011, they'll be in Phoenix.

Same goes for the new China event, which Beth Ann Baldry feared would face a diminished field, coming as it does right after the Evian Masters and Women's British Open. But with a week off before and after that 3-week run, and with its $2M purse nothing to sneeze at, why would you give your top competitors a break by skipping it? Baldry also questioned the skip week at the end of October that comes between the Taiwan and Japan events, wondering whether that would diminish the Mizuno field. Perhaps, but what it avoids is the top Japanese golfers having to play 5 weeks in a row--or having to skip an LPGA event to avoid doing so. Given that they're not eligible for the Solheim Cup, you can bet your bottom dollar that they will play the most prestigious tournament on the JLPGA schedule, the Japan Women's Open, the week after it. If it was weather concerns that kept some of them out of the traditionally late October Korean event, perhaps moving it up to early October the week after the JWO to start the LPGA's Asian swing will make it less likely they'll skip it. But I'm thinking that what will draw them to play all 4 of those weeks in a row is the fact that everyone who participated in the Solheim Cup and other top players without JLPGA membership will definitely be playing Korea, Malaysia, and Taiwan. Putting aside the fact that the JLPGA schedule was announced before the LPGA's and the Mizuno was set in stone for the 1st week of November in 2011, the fall Asian swing is getting full enough that building in a skip week is something all the LPGAers who participate in it might benefit from. Plus it puts pressure on the JLPGA to up the Mizuno's purse, which has been losing ground lately to other JLPGA and LPGA events, or face the prospect of further defections down the road by LPGAers.

What this brief survey of how the compressed 2nd half of the LPGA's season puts pressure on players aiming for the top of the tour to make it their top priority suggests is that the LPGA figured out how to make some lemonade out of lemons in 2011. Personally, I would like to see some more schedule shuffling for 2012 and beyond: specifically, moving the Walmart, Navistar, and Safeway events to the late spring to fill out the schedule between the KNC and Wegmans LPGA Championship, moving the Canadian Women's Open to follow the U.S. Women's Open and precede what would become a 2nd half of the season that moved from Europe to Asia to Hawaii to Guadalajara to San Antonio (Lorena's desired event) to Orlando twice (Annika's desired event and the Titleholders). But given the position the LPGA is in, the 2011 schedule could have been a lot worse. And the reordering of it takes the LPGA a few more steps in the right direction. Not bad!

[Update 1 (4:46 pm): Hound Dog points out that the outlook for 2011 is a big improvement on where we were at when 1st looking at the 2010 schedule.]

[Update 2 (4:48 pm): Randall Mell and Ryan Ballengee discuss the possible postponement or worse of the Tres Marias event.]

[Update 3 (5:00 pm): Reading Randall Mell's take on the Phoenix Founders Cup event, it occurred to me that the LPGA is asking current pros to make a commitment to the future of the tour. If the "donations" from the players can help the LPGA-USGA Girls' Golf Program (which traces its origins to Phoenix, by the way) grow the game and get more girls playing (and following) golf, we may see more Morgan Pressels and Vicky Hursts down the road on the LPGA. It'll be interesting to see which players commit to honoring the LPGA's founders and developing an American pipeline to the LPGA this year and in the future.]

[Update 4 (5:05 pm): Here's Ron Sirak's take on the Founders Cup.]

[Update 5 (1/8/10, 2:22 am): Hound Dog makes a strong case why the Founders Cup isn't a stupid idea. I'm convinced. How about you?]

[Update 6 (2:54 am): Here are my thoughts on why the Tres Marias event should be moved to San Antonio, pronto.]

[Update 7 (3:05 am): I should note that I haven't yet seen the Golf Channel release of the LPGA schedule. That's why I'm excited to check out the links bangkokbobby found!]


Mike said...

I like that characterization of me as "intrigued" with the Founders Cup. I'd say that's an accurate take, and it's primarily because (as I mentioned in my post) Michael Whan indicated that the players had been talking about this for half a year and were all onboard.

All-in-all, I think you summed it up best when you said "the LPGA figured out how to make some lemonade out of lemons" with this year's schedule. This recession (or whatever you want to call it) has had some serious repercussions all the way through the economy, and I think it's unrealistic to expect everything to just "bounce back" in a year or so. The LPGA approach shows some creative thinking when they just don't have much to work with.

The Founders Cup is clearly an attempt to make the US girls golf program more competitive with other programs around the world. Those programs have government backing, we don't... but that also gives us more freedom in what we decide to do. The Founders Cup strikes me as a creative approach to the problem. Like I said in a comment on my post, even if the Founders Cup runs for only one year, the girls golf program is instantly doubled in size. That's impressive to me!

All the other changes are largely tweaks -- you can't just make wholesale changes in the schedule when you have sponsors to satisfy -- but they appear to be well-thought-out tweaks. They left room for the Farr to return and they left room for new sponsors -- without having extended runs that might cause some players to sit out tournaments to rest. The gaps leave room for maybe 5 or 6 new tournaments before they need to consider crowded schedules.

Best of all, it simply shows that the LPGA is willing to try some new things. Should some of these ideas -- like the Founders Cup -- prove to be successful, they may even start being viewed as innovators. They'll certainly garner some attention... and right now the LPGA can needs all of that they can get.

The Constructivist said...

Good points, Mike!