Stacy Lewis, the defending Kraft Nabisco champion, is looking for another… (David Cannon / Getty Images )
A couple of years ago, there were only 24 tournaments on the LPGA Tour schedule. And in a controversial moment only a year ago, players were asked to donate all prize money from one tour event to charities rather than their own bank accounts.
But now, the LPGA is heading into its first major of the year, the Kraft Nabisco Championship beginning Thursday at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, on a high note.
Defending champion Stacy Lewis announced Wednesday that she had signed a sponsorship deal with KPMG, an audit, tax and advisory firm. If KPMG seems familiar to golf fans, it is because its other athlete representative is Phil Mickelson.
Not bad company for a young woman with one major title to her name.
Other signs of progress with the sport include the addition of five new events this year, including the return of the Jamie Farr Toledo Classic and an increase in prize money (all of it going to the players) from $44,220,000 in 2011 to $48,720,000 in 2012.
Commissioner Mike Whan said there are still negatives.
Only the U.S. Open in July will get any network television coverage. The Kraft Nabisco will be solely on cable, the Golf Channel.
Whan said he would like to have three to five more events on the calendar and would like to keep the focus of the sport pointed toward North America, even as more and more of the top golfers, including No. 1-ranked Yani Tseng of Taiwan, come from Asia.
"Golf is truly global," Whan said, "but we also don't want to become nomads. Of the five events we've added this year, four are North American. That's important."
Television ratings for the LPGA were also were up significantly in 2011 over 2010 on the Golf Channel.
According to statistics provided from the network from the Nielsen ratings service, viewership in 2011 from 2010 was up 30%. Some 3.2 million watched the international competition, the Solheim Cup, on the Golf Channel last year, a record.
Although Tseng, who has won six of her last 12 events and four of the last eight LPGA major events, doesn't rival Tiger Woods in U.S. popularity, she is becoming a worldwide star. Tseng said she has noticed in the last six months that even in the United States, "People see me and know me," she said. "I never expected that."
Lewis said that it was a feel-good moment for her when she was approached by KPMG. She was proud for herself and also for the LPGA Tour.
"We've had a couple of years where we were struggling," she said. "To have a great company step up and see the value that our tour provides, not only to put a logo out there but to see the relationships and how we interact in pro-ams and entertain people, that's how our tour is different."
And Wednesday at Mission Hills, KPMG Chief Executive John Veihmeyer spoke enthusiastically about why his company decided to make Lewis its second athlete sponsor after Mickelson, who has represented the company since 2008.
"Women are continuing to emerge in leadership roles in our company," Veihmeyer said. "We've had a great relationship with Phil and I felt something was missing in our golf sponsorship and what was missing was a relationship with the LPGA. …We want to send a very direct message to our women and the women clients that we serve."
Lewis jumped into Veihmeyer's consciousness last year when she dramatically won here, coming from two shots behind Tseng at the start of the final round.
The 27-year-old played college golf at the University of Arkansas, and is ranked ninth in the world according to the Rolex Rankings. Among Americans only Paula Creamer (eighth) is better.
Lewis isn't the only LPGA player to announce a new sponsorship agreement this week. Morgan Pressel, who won her only major here in 2007, will now be representing Lilly Pulitzer