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LPGA faces a tough week

Players want commissioner to resign, but they don't want the controversy to disrupt the U.S. Open.

July 08, 2009|Mark Wogenrich

BETHLEHEM, PA. — Cristie Kerr knew it was coming, so she halted potential inquiries with a preemptive statement.

"Out of respect for the USGA, I'm asking that questions at this time be reserved for the U.S. Open or questions about myself and my golf and perhaps my wine-making," the 2007 U.S. Women's Open champion said. "I cannot comment on matters pertaining to the LPGA operations, as I do not have an official capacity to do that."

The LPGA's real-world drama intruded upon Saucon Valley Country Club on Tuesday after reports that leading tour players, Kerr among them, have asked LPGA Commissioner Carolyn Bivens to resign. And it formed an awkward moment for players and the LPGA, who want to keep their organization's internal affairs out of the U.S. Golf Assn.'s annual national championship.

"This is an important week for the players and the LPGA, and we're focused first and foremost on the U.S. Women's Open," said David Higdon, chief communications officer for the LPGA. "The LPGA players, staff and board all care deeply about our Tour, and we're all working hard to achieve the same long-term objective to grow our Tour. It's not in the best interest of women's golf to openly discuss internal matters, but you can rest assured that the LPGA and its board of directors consider any topic raised by the players seriously since we are a player organization."

According to Golfweek and GolfWorld magazines, a group of players met last week in Ohio at the Jamie Farr Owens Corning Classic (whose chances of returning next year are 50/50, according to its host and former "MASH" star) to discuss the state of its organization.

From that meeting, both magazines reported, came a letter signed by as many as 15 players, including Kerr, Lorena Ochoa, Paula Creamer and Morgan Pressel, seeking Bivens' resignation. The letter was sent to the LPGA's 13-member board of directors, which includes seven player-directors.

A majority vote could remove Bivens from her position. In June 2008, the board gave Bivens a three-year extension to her contract, which began in 2005.

The players are concerned about their diminishing schedule, which has lost seven events since 2007. Last week, organizers of the Kapalua LPGA Classic announced that they will not hold their tournament in October, citing lack of sponsorship. That is a recurring theme on the LPGA Tour, which could have as few as 10 full-field events in the United States in 2010.

In their letter, according to Golfweek, players said the loss of tournaments cannot be blamed solely on the economy. They cited eroding relationships between sponsors and the LPGA Tour, something sponsors have noted from their side as well.

"I think the players have done a good job of expressing the way they feel," said Angela Stanford, who was not at the players meeting and did not sign the letter. "Our player-directors have done a good job relaying that information. It's unfortunate there had to be a letter, but I know the LPGA is going to be respectful and handle this the best way moving forward for both parties. I have complete faith our board is going to do the right thing and do it in the most respectful way."

That the news was leaked during U.S. Open week points to the players' mounting frustration. The Open is conducted by the USGA and is not an LPGA-sponsored event. Players revere the event as their national championship, rising above a weekly tour stop.

But those weekly tour stops surrounding the Open are an issue. Following their week in Saucon Valley, tour players won't play a U.S. event until the Safeway Classic, scheduled for the last week of August in Portland, Ore. Currently, the LPGA has just five events remaining in the U.S. for 2009.

"This is my ninth year on tour, and I just want what's best," Stanford said. "Who am I to say what's best? But at the same time, losing tournaments is tough on players. It's tough for anybody on the money list, whether you're No. 1 or 125. It's tough for everybody. We all just want what's best. I think that's what [the players] are trying to do."

In 2008, according to LPGA stats, the tour saw all-time highs in attendance, tournaments, prize money and traffic to its website. But this year, the tour lost two events when the Ginn Group dropped its sponsorship, bid farewell to a long-time event in Corning, N.Y., and is looking for a sponsor and course for the LPGA Championship. Tournaments across the landscape are without deals for 2010.

Economic factors regulate those decisions, though players and tournament organizers say the LPGA's position of seeking higher purses and fees in the current climate have frustrated and squeezed sponsors. Some players have said they are willing to play for smaller purses in order to retain sponsors.

Higdon said Bivens is expected to arrive at Saucon Valley today. The Women's Open begins Thursday. She will not address the issue, because it's U.S. Open week.

"We are very unified in wanting to make our tour better and we're looking at every possible opportunity, from top to bottom," Kerr said.

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mark.wogenrich@mcall.com

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