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Plenty of work left for the LPGA

For all the hype about the LPGA Tour, it still comes down to performance.

On the golf course, the LPGA season has started nicely. There were two playoffs in Hawaii, won by players named Kim and Lee (or maybe it was the other way around). Annika Sorenstam won her '06 debut in a tournament that resembled the Champions Tour (54 holes and the players rode in a cart).

And in a reminder that women's golf isn't only for teenagers, 45-year-old Juli Inkster won the Safeway International for her first victory in three years.

"I like beating the kids," Inkster said Tuesday. "I like to let them know I'm still around."

But there is much work to be done if the LPGA Tour, as new commissioner Carolyn Bivens recently gushed, is really "one of the hottest properties in the sports world."

Of course, it's hard to take her seriously when Sorenstam's 2006 debut was shown on tape delay in the evening by The Golf Channel, which devoted its afternoon coverage to the Canadian Tour.

Now comes the first major championship of the year, and there is work to be done.

It takes away from the aura of a major when an Oscar Meyer "wienermobile" is parked between the putting green and the practice range. Equally rare at a major championship is when the top players have to play a pro-am for two days before Thursday's opening round.

The reasons why the LPGA Tour is riding a wave illustrates how far it has to go.

It has perhaps the most dominant player in sport, and no one seems to care. Annika Sorenstam has won 67 times in her career, nine of those majors. But it took her playing on the PGA Tour at the 2003 Colonial to get recognized.

The top attraction is 16-year-old Michelle Wie of Hawaii, who already has been on the cover of Fortune and is featured in a Q&A in this week's edition of Time. She is the most exciting player in women's golf, yet she is not an LPGA Tour member, and might not join if she decides to chase her dream around the globe.

The supporting cast is a growing group of attractive young Americans, such as Paula Creamer, who won twice as a rookie and starred in the Solheim Cup; Morgan Pressel, the unlucky runner-up at the U.S. Women's Open with a big heart and a sharp tongue; and Natalie Gulbis, who has a reality show, a calendar, but still no trophy.

And there is Christina Kim, who speaks her mind, and sometimes she makes sense.

Sometimes she doesn't.

Asked about the world ranking in women's golf, which has been lampooned since the day it was published, Kim thought it should be based on more than performance.

"I think there should be opinion put into that," she said. "I think there should be other factors, not necessarily popularity, but if people, you know ... it's hard to describe. I think you have to have your heart and opinion put down on paper. And for that reason, I don't think it's ever going to be a truly successful means of ranking."

What did make sense was when Kim talked about this being a big week.

The Kraft Nabisco is a week later than usual, meaning it does not have to compete against The Players Championship or the NCAA regional finals in basketball. Whether it gets more coverage than Phil Mickelson defending his title in Atlanta at the BellSouth Classic will be an important test of the LPGA's value.

It probably doesn't help that the LPGA Tour has Wie and Ai Miyazato, the teenage sensation from Japan, playing in the final pairing Friday and finishing the second round about 9 p.m. EST.

The total purse for the Kraft Nabisco is $1.8 million, which is only $360,000 more than Stephen Ames won for his victory at Sawgrass last week. If the LPGA Tour is truly a hot property, sponsors will recognize that, prize money will soar and Sorenstam won't have to spend two days in a pro-am before a major.

If the LPGA is a hot property, fans will flock to watch them. As it is, the only major that draws major crowds is the U.S. Women's Open, the biggest event in women's golf and one not conducted by the LPGA Tour.

And if the LPGA is a hot property, more women will get endorsement deals from big corporations.

It starts with good coverage, and that goes beyond CBS Sports taking over for ABC in its final-round coverage.

The Associated Press, the Honolulu Advertiser and the Honolulu Star-Bulletin refused to cover the first round of the Fields Open -- the 2006 debut of Wie -- because of media regulations they found unreasonable.

Inkster said media coverage was at an all-time high, but she must not be reading Golf World magazine. One of the top golf magazines, it did not have any coverage of the LPGA -- words or photos -- for the first four tournaments, until announcing Tuesday that the LPGA eliminated requirements that kept it away.

Bivens is trying to protect the LPGA brand, but why she waited until the first tournament of the year instead of working with top media outlets during the three-month offseason remains a mystery.

Instead of embracing media coverage, her arrogance and stubborn attitude has created a frosty relationship.

Ultimately, that won't matter.

She is not what drives the LPGA Tour. It's the players.

And if the LPGA Tour is one of the hottest properties in sports, people won't be able to take their eyes off them.

March 30, 2006

 




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