Monday, July 13, 2009

LPGA woes go beyond its Commissioner

To no one's surprise, the commissioner of the LPGA, Carolyn Bivens, who was under pressure to step down after it became public that fifteen of the top women's golfers were trying to oust her, resigned her post Monday with two years remaining on her contract. Replacing Bivens on a temporary basis will be 61-year-old Marsha Evans, a member of the LPGA board who is a retired rear admiral for the navy. She has also run the Girl Scouts of America and the American Red Cross.
Look, I'm no Bivens apologist. From the time she was hired in 2005 she was a bad fit for the women's tour--firing longtime employees, pricing loyal sponsors and small town tournaments out of the game, trying to muscle her agenda through without building consensus. She had no background in women's golf and had an overbearing personality--a bad combination. Since 2007 seven tournaments have disappeared, and one of their majors--the McDonalds LPGA--is now homeless. The imploding economy is partially to blame, of course, but Bivens' refusal to talk about lowering purses and controlling costs contributed to the defections of sponsors. Her bad business decisions, not her personality, ultimately led to the players' revolt.
But the problems of the LPGA go well beyond their flawed commissioner. I covered the sport for three years, and I can give you any number of reasons sponsors are fleeing women's golf. Here are the top four:
1) From a marketing and entertainment perspective, there really are too many Koreans. Bivens was roundly criticized for threatening suspensions of any LPGA player who wasn't conversant in English, in hopes that the Koreans on tour would better interact with sponsors, the media, and fans--a directive she ultimately backed away from. But the fact is any professional sport has to be able to sell itself, and the Koreans on the LPGA tour--there are 45 of them--do little to build interest in the women's game. It may be a cultural thing--in fact it probably is--but most Korean players seem to deliberately hide their personality. Here's a picture of Eun-hee Ji, who won the U.S. Open on Sunday. A star is born! Let's see: black hat, black sunglasses, black shirt, black pants...People rob banks dressed like that. The fact that Ji's press conference was conducted through an interpreter is the least of the LPGA's problems. The winner of women's golf's biggest tournament could have been a teenaged boy, the way she dressed. She has no public face and no recognizable shape. She wears black. Putts well. Go ahead and try to promote that.
And of course there are the others. Nine of the top fifteen finishers in the 2009 U.S. Women's Open were born in South Korea. One stroke back was In-Kyung Kim. Tied for ninth were Na-yeon Choi, Kyeong Bae and Hee Young Park. Alone in 12th was Song-Hee Kim. Filling out the top fifteen were Jiyai Shin, Jennifer Song, and Sun Ju Ahn. Nowhere in there was South Korean Birdie Kim, whose only win was the 2005 U.S. Open. Or South Korean Inbee Park, whose only win was the 2008 U.S. Open.
Faceless names, one as anonymous as the next. Why should we care that South Koreans have taken over the women's game? We don't care. That's the point. We just don't care. But if you are a sponsor, you want people to care about women's golf. To care who wins. That way, you might watch.
2) Annika Sorenstam has retired. Annika was the face, and body, of women's golf for a decade or more. She was that rare athlete who was known by one name, Annika, like Kobe or Lance or Tiger, and whose popularity went beyond her sport. People who knew nothing about women's golf knew about Annika. She was the girl in the major's race with Tiger. First to ten! First to eleven! She was attractive and non-threatening to both men and women, someone we could always root for if we happened to flip on a women's golf tournament. No one disliked Annika. Many people liked her a lot, especially in the brave, dignified way she competed in a PGA tour event, nearly making the cut at Colonial. Without Annika, the LPGA now lacks a promotable star.

3) Michelle Wie, the future of women's golf, is a bust.
Wie was a media invention, as television producers and newspaper and magazine editors tried to be the first to invent the Tiger Woods of women's golf. My golf editor at Sports Illustrated was absolutely convinced she was going to be a superstar, and whenever she competed in a tournament, whether she was near the top of the scoreboard or not, I was told to make Wie my focus. She was young, she was good, she hit the ball a long way for a girl, and she had long legs and short shorts. She also, much to my delight, said provocative things that were ambitious and incredibly, incredibly dumb--like her goal was to qualify for the Masters and to make the men's Ryder Cup team. Hello? This girl got into Stanford? How?
Meanwhile, her game just kept getting worse. She was able to sign a huge endorsement contract with Nike before things really went south--someone sure looks like an idiot for that move--but it added marketing clout to the Michelle Wie myth. Several times she was offered, and stupidly accepted, exemptions to play in PGA Tour events that needed publicity, which both exposed her game as deeply flawed and exacerbated the resentment against Wie that had built within the LPGA, a tour that needed a young star of Wie's aura and Nike's backing. When Wie finally did accept that she wasn't PGA Tour material and decided to play full time against the ladies, guess what? She turned out to be just another player. She hasn't won. She didn't even qualify for the 2009 U.S. Women's Open. She wasn't remotely Tiger-esque. Because she never learned how to win. She looked good, had a gorgeous swing, hit the ball a ton...but Michelle Wie never learned how to score and to play with a lead. She is the star who wasn't, yet sadly is still the biggest name in women's golf.
4) The women's game is boring.
It is. And I'm not being sexist in saying that. I'm being honest. I covered it. I watch it on television. Women's golf is paint drying played with a ball.
Look, it's not just women's golf. Most men's golf is boring, too. Steve Stricker is great, but boring. So is Lucas Glover, winner of the 2009 US Open. So are a lot of guys who hit it straight and putt well. Exciting is Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson and Sergio Garcia, who hit it a mile, all over the place, behind trees, into bunkers, into gnarly lies in the rough, then somehow get up and down for par. Or make a triple bogey. I play golf, and I see these guys get into and out of predicaments that blow my mind. That's what's fun to watch. Not fairways and greens.
The ladies? Never happens. They hit it straight, keep it safely in play, put it on the green, and sink putts. Or miss them. They're smooth and rhythmic and very, very skillful. But it's like watching a guy play the French horn. Give me wild eyes and big cheeks! Give me Louis Armstrong! In the women's game there are no 350 yard bombs off the tee that wind up in the wrong county. Thus no thrilling escapes. If they get into trouble, they're about five yards off the fairway. They win with consistency and the flatstick, not exactly the formula for thrilling viewing. No swashbuckling on the LPGA. And weirdly, most LPGA players have their caddies stand behind them to line them up before they hit the ball. What the hell is that? You're a professional golfer and you can't align your own feet? Jesus Minnie. And while I'm bitching, the ladies are also slow. Glacial. You can't really tell watching television, because the producers cut away from the tediousness. But in person you are subjected to the sight of women golfers who insist on marking a one foot putt in order to realign their ball so the line is pointing straight into the hole. Just shoot me now! Tap the damn thing in! (Annika was an exception, by the way. She was not just the best player on the LPGA tour, she was the fastest.)
....So the new Commissioner, Marsha Evans, has her work cut out for her. But, hey, I think the LPGA is onto something with Evans. She was a rear admiral for the Navy, after all. She should be well versed in manning the helm of a sinking ship.