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Published: 7/6/2008

LPGA officials not running from problems

BY MAUREEN FULTON
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

One of the LPGA's versions of Tiger Woods is calling it quits after this season. Most of the tour's best players are not from the United States, and the time and money of the league's fans are becoming even more precious in some tough economic times.

With the aggressive way the LPGA is approaching its challenges, the sport is trying to ensure it will be just fine.

Top officials for the LPGA, which makes its annual stop in northwest Ohio this week for the Jamie Farr Owens Corning Classic at Highland Meadows Golf Club in Sylvania, are keeping the tour ahead of the pack. The players are responding by being largely supportive of the changes.

This spring the league became the first professional golf organization to implement a random drug-testing program, something that the PGA started last week. The LPGA also has become more strict on pace of play.

"By announcing the [drug testing] program and agreeing to and developing the program ahead of any other pro golf organization, we are the embodiment about what being proactive is," LPGA general counsel Jill Pilgrim said.

With Annika Sorenstam's impending retirement, it's important for the LPGA to be progressive in running the league to keep a stellar reputation. Sorenstam said earlier this year she thinks the drug testing program will help do that.

"Unfortunately, I think it's necessary," Sorenstam said. "I'm not really sure we have an issue on our tour, but I think as a leading organization, we need to stay up with the times and also set precedents for the future, for young, upcoming players."

LPGA commissioner Carolyn Bivens would like to curb any potential drug scandals before they happen.

"While the LPGA has had no evidence to date of performance-enhancing drug use by our players, we recognize the concerns regarding drug use in sport and the need to have a clear policy and program in place," Bivens said last fall when the program was announced.

Pilgrim joined the LPGA staff in January, 2007, to help the tour launch its drug-testing program. She previously worked with the anti-doping task force at USA Track and Field and has nearly 20 years of experience with drug testing.

"To me the LPGA showed a very clear commitment to the program," Pilgrim said.

The tour provided education to the players about the program in 2007 and have continued that this year. After a hiccup in April, when the LPGA fired the original drug testing agency Comprehensive Drug Testing and replaced them with the National Center for Drug Free Sport, Pilgrim says the testing has gone smoothly.

The tour will not release how many players are being tested per tournament or how many times a player will be tested a year.

"Those players who have actually been selected for testing have been very positive," Pilgrim said. "They have cooperated fully with the procedure and process. I'm sure that there are some players who aren't sure about it, who are concerned about it, leery of the process, probably since they haven't been through it yet."

Players have been mostly favorable of another big change on tour this year, which is the enforcement of a faster pace of play. Former LPGA player Jane Geddes has headed a change in the rules to decrease round times.

Geddes, who became the LPGA's vice president of competition last year, was always a speedy player on tour. One year at the Jamie Farr, The Blade took an informal survey of some of the tour players, and Geddes was voted the fastest player.

She was hired after enough complaints built up about the slow pace on the golf course that the tour felt it had to do something about it.

"The pace of play overall in golf in general has gotten worse and worse over the years," Geddes said. "Being a professional sport and being in the public eye we felt responsible not only for players, but for fans to see if we could do something about it."

This year players have a few less seconds to take a shot and complete a hole. Also, officials can time players who are out of position on a course and time the players who have a reputation for playing slow.

If players don't comply, they can take a two-stroke penalty. Two players have had to take that penalty this year, including Angela Park, who would have finished second at the SBS Open if she hadn't been so slow to hit a shot.

Geddes said when talking to the players, "It wasn't like we had to sell it. We just had to do it."

"The players are happy to put anything in place that will make the play faster overall," Geddes said. "We've gotten some very positive comments from players, the only negative comments are from those who have been penalized."

The rule changes have taken about 15 minutes off an average round of golf this year to put the time at four hours, 45 minutes per round. Geddes said the LPGA would like to get the average to 4 1/2 hours.

Players can already sense the changes, said Morgan Pressel. Pressel told the Orlando Sentinel, "Quite frankly, it was ridiculous out there."

With the players' blessings, the LPGA hopes its new policies will help the league continue to grow.

Contact Maureen Fulton at:

mfulton@theblade.com

or 419-724-6160.



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