It could be suggested that the LPGA Tour s current business model is putting the squeeze on nice, feel-good community events that raise substantial money for charity and aren t otherwise concerned with impressing anyone.
That would include events like the Jamie Farr Owens Corning Classic, to be held this week at Highland Meadows Golf Club in Sylvania.
Once upon a time, the LPGA s schedule was filled with Farrs and its success relied on those fans in mid-sized U.S. markets that rallied around an affordable option to bring a pro sporting event to town.
That changed in a big way three years ago when Carolyn Bivens became commissioner of the LPGA and brought a bigger-must-be-better approach to the tour.
Occasionally at the expense of existing, long-time LPGA events, Bivens has jockeyed the schedule to accommodate new, big-dollar sponsors and to expand the tour overseas, especially to Pacific-rim nations where the economic cup runneth over and women s golf is surging in popularity. New events with purses of $2 million or more are the rule rather than the exception.
Nancy Lopez was the fan favorite in the inaugural Farr Classic in 1984, and she's still the fan favorite in 2008.
Don Heupel / AP Enlarge
The LPGA s 2008 schedule includes events in Singapore, China, South Korea and Japan, with three tournaments in Hawaii serving as stopping-off points. A sponsor in Thailand is expected to step forward and join the party in 09 and the oil-rich Middle East reportedly is another target audience.
Mix in three Mexican-based events, built off the popularity of Lorena Ochoa, the world s No. 1-ranked player, and regular stops in France, Great Britain and Canada and it s easy to see why the LPGA bills itself as a true world tour.
It sounds as if pro golf s little engine is now turbo-charged but, alas, there are dark clouds threatening to rain on thisparade of riches.
Several domestic events, including one in Hawaii, are threatened by sponsorship losses due to an economy whose cup is running more and more on empty these days. The Mexican stops have never been particularly popular with the players and lack any significant TV contracts. And most of the newer Pacific events are for limited fields, which is great for some of the players some of the time, but never for all of the tour s golfers all of the time.
So tournaments like the Farr the one-time lifeblood events with full, 144-player fields in places like Toledo, Rochester, Williamsburg, Corning, N.Y., Springfield, Ill., etc should continue to be relevant.
It s up to the Farr Classic as to how relevant.
The Farr has been here before. In 1996, during the first year of title sponsorship by Kroger, the event was a 54-hole affair with a so-so purse that drew a so-so field.
At the pro-am dinner party that year, Kroger regional president Bill Parker took the microphone and without any prior warning, even to Farr founder and director Judd Silverman, announced that the tournament would expand to 72 holes with a purse of $700,000 starting in 97.
Just like that, the Farr had arrived. And, in 2000, Kroger and the then-presenting sponsor, ALLTEL, upped the ante again by boosting the purse to $1 million. Not including major championships, only three U.S.-based LPGA Tour events paid larger purses that year than did the Farr.
A lot has changed in the past eight years. This week s Farr Classic sports a purse of $1.3 million.
From the start of the LPGA season in February through the end of its prime-time summer schedule in September, only one tournament out of 26 offers a purse smaller than $1.3 million. In the five weeks leading up to today, a stretch that included two major championships, the purses averaged $2.26 million. In the five weeks that will follow the Farr, which includes one major, the purses will average $2.14 million.
Can the Farr continue to thrive or will its week be the one that the big-name, big-game-hunting golfers opt to skip?
Ochoa would rather pay a fine than adhere to the LPGA s 1-in-4 participation rule that mandates she play in the Farr this year. Her last and, for that matter, only appearance at Highland Meadows was in 2004.
Annika Sorenstam, who is No. 2, won t be making the Farr part of her farewell tour despite being a former champion. No. 3 Suzann Pettersen won t be here. Elsewhere in this section is a story about Morgan Pressel, last summer s Farr runner-up and one of the LPGA s most popular young players, opting to accept an appearance fee to play in the Ladies Irish Open this week instead of a domestic tour event.
Based on the LPGA commitment sheet for the Farr, only five of the top 10 and 12 of the top 20 players in the world rankings will be in this year s field. With names like Paula Creamer, Cristie Kerr, defending champion Se Ri Pak, Karrie Webb, Natalie Gulbis, Laura Diaz, flamboyant Christina Kim and LPGA legend Nancy Lopez, maybe that s more than enough.
If so, fine. It s a wonderful local event that this week will surpass the $6 million mark in funds raised for local children s charities. It s a good time for those who play in the pro-ams. It grabs its six hours of national cable TV exposure to serve as an ambassador for the city and region. It s an inexpensive by pro sports standards outing for families. It s a cool social gathering for those who like a scene at which to be seen.
Maybe that s plenty. Maybe bigger doesn t translate to better. Maybe bigger isn t necessary.
But the LPGA s business model and the Farr s business model aren t exactly one in the same. Down the road, let s hope that a fine event with considerable history isn t left by the side of that road.
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