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Published: Tuesday, 7/7/2009

Future of the Farr could hinge on fate of commissioner

Thousands of fans flock to Highland Meadows Golf Club in Sylvania each year to see Natalie Gulbis and her fellow LPGA professionals, but the tournament's future is up in the air. Thousands of fans flock to Highland Meadows Golf Club in Sylvania each year to see Natalie Gulbis and her fellow LPGA professionals, but the tournament's future is up in the air.
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Carolyn Bivens has been a polarizing figure since she became commissioner of the LPGA Tour in the fall of 2005.

Some of her ideas and moves have made her a punching bag for the media, and too many tournament owners and sponsors have gone from feeling like customers and colleagues to mere ATM machines for the tour.

But she was able to ignore much of the criticism because she knew her constituency had her back. She promised LPGA members bigger tournaments with bigger dollars in bigger and more global markets, not to mention increased revenues that could provide them with benefits and a pension plan.

If a few feathers were ruffled along the way, so be it.

She preached and the choir said, "Amen."

Now, all of that may be changing.

Golfweek Magazine reported yesterday that a group of prominent LPGA players sent a letter to the tour's board of directors urging Ms. Bivens' resignation or removal in the hope that the tour can "rebuild relationships with longtime sponsors."

The letter stemmed from a dinner meeting last week at Mancy's while many of the world's best female golfers were in Toledo for the Jamie Farr Owens Corning Classic. The Blade was able to confirm that the meeting took place and that attendance ranged from Hall of Famers to at least one player who sits on the LPGA's board of directors to several of the tour's top younger stars.

They were not there just for a good steak or to raise a glass to their commissioner.

"We're mad," one golfer told The Blade, requesting anonymity. "And we're scared."

For good reason, it would seem.

In 2005, when Ms. Bivens took over, there were 35 tournaments on the LPGA schedule. This year, there were 28 before the surprise announcement last week that the Kapalua LPGA Classic, slated for October in Hawaii, was suspending operations. Another Hawaiian event played this year, the SBS Open, has since lost its title sponsor, the Seoul Broadcasting System. A longtime tournament, the Corning (N.Y.) Classic, was played in May but will disappear from future schedules. (Corning Incorporated is a Fortune 500 company, formerly Corning Glass Works and not related to Owens Corning.) And a major sponsor, McDonald's, will no longer be printing money for the LPGA Championship.

Another key sponsor, ADT, which made possible the end-of-the-season Tour Championship, jumped ship after the 2008 event. The LPGA moved an April event sponsored by Stanford Financial Group in Houston to November to compensate. If you read the business pages you know the Stanford Group is in receivership and that Allen Stanford is in jail awaiting trial on charges he perpetrated a $7 billion fraud. IMG, the giant sports conglomerate that brokered the deal, is reportedly on the hook for this year's purse, but that's another sponsor you can likely cross off the list after '09.

How many more will follow? There are at least seven other tournaments, including our Farr Classic, that have no contract with the LPGA beyond 2009.

At Sunday's closing ceremonies at Highland Meadows, tournament host Jamie Farr looked from champion Eunjung Yi to runner-up Morgan Pressel, both 21, and saluted "the future of the LPGA. And I hope we're part of the LPGA's future."

Tournament director Judd Silverman told fans: "I promise you, we will do everything in our power to return next year."

Don't expect any quick resolution. Mr. Silverman and his board of directors will likely be content to play the waiting game, to see if Ms. Bivens survives or if discontented players are able to pressure the commissioner into making nice with longtime tour events like those in Rochester, which has been around since 1977, and the Farr, which just concluded its 25th year.

Since Ms. Bivens has been in control, sanction fees that tournaments pay to the LPGA have increased dramatically. Mr. Silverman won't say what the amount is, citing a confidentiality clause in the contract, but the Farr went from raising $450,000 for its charities in 2007 to about $350,000 last year, and it's probably safe to assume the increased sanction fee played a big role in that diminished bottom line.

Ms. Bivens expects tournaments to pay more to rent the tour's mandatory electronic scoring system, an expense that tournaments used to split 50-50 with the tour. She is seeking an increased television fee and may have a minimum purse structure in mind. Every additional dollar a tournament agrees to pay the LPGA is a dollar off the bottom line. At some point, whether they are for-profit, corporate-owned events or non-profits that exist to raise money for local charities, they all have to decide if it's worth the considerable effort.

If the economy had remained healthy and vibrant, Ms. Bivens probably could impose her will in this fashion, and she probably could have pulled off all the schedule restructuring she favored, and the LPGA probably would be chugging right along in the image its commissioner envisioned.

But that hasn't been the case. Her hard-line negotiating stance hasn't changed and tournaments continue to disappear. Now, her golfers, independent contractors whose ability to make a living depends on the number of earning opportunities presented, are attempting to impose their will.

Right now, there are nearly as many off weeks on the schedule as there are tournaments. And not all of those are full-field events open to all tour members. That isn't satisfactory and the players are angry and concerned about their futures.

Mr. Farr said last week it was a "50-50" proposition, in his opinion, that the Farr would be back for a 26th year. I think the odds are better that the LPGA will return to Toledo because the golfers will do all they can to see that it happens.

The choir isn't saying "Amen" anymore.



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