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Futures Tour now stepping-stone to LPGA

If women's golf has someone like Tom Lehman struggling to make it to the big tour, it now has just the place.

Commissioner Jim Ritts announced Wednesday that the LPGA Tour signed a five-year deal with the Futures Tour to make it the official developmental tour of the LPGA.

"With the growing number of women worldwide entering the game, it was evident to me there was a growing chasm between amateur or collegiate golf and the LPGA Tour," Ritts said. "This continues to ensure that potential stars are not being lost in that chasm."

Under the agreement, the top three on the Futures money list will earn LPGA cards for the next season, and the next seven will automatically get into the final round of qualifying school.

"I think this will help us solidify our place in women's golf," said Futures spokeswoman Tracy Kerdyk.

The Futures Tour will be similar to the Nike Tour, which has produced players like Lehman, David Duval, Jim Furyk and John Daly.

Before he became the British Open champion and PGA player of the year in 1996, Lehman was bouncing around mini-tours in California and other tours around the world. He was on the verge of giving up the game to become a golf coach in Minnesota when he used the Nike Tour -- then known as the Hogan Tour -- as his road back to the PGA.

"How much less rich would the golf world be without Tom Lehman?" Ritts said. "He's probably selling skis without the Hogan tour. I know there's a need for this."

Ritts and his staff have been working on a developmental tour for the past four years, trying to decide whether to start their own or sign up an existing tour.

The Futures has been around for 19 years and now has 19 tournaments from coast to coast, playing for a total purse of $1 million. The agreement with the LPGA now offers its players a direct link to the LPGA and its $36 million in prize money.

"The relationship will be a catalyst to take women's golf to the next level," said Zayra Calderon, chief executive officer of the Futures Tour. "We are thrilled that it has evolved into a national tour with recognized players and is a natural stepping stone to the LPGA Tour."

Among the 160 alumni of Futures events are Tammie Green, Meg Mallon and Donna Andrews. Karrie Webb of Australia played the Futures Tour in 1995, a year before she became the first rookie to win over $1 million on the LPGA Tour.

"I believe this alliance is a positive situation for everyone," Ritts said. "Potential stars will have a vehicle to hone their skills and an additional avenue to qualify for the LPGA, and the official relationship ensures the growth and depth of talent over the long term for women's golf."

Now that it has signed up as the official developmental tour for the LPGA, the Futures Tour is trying to find a corporate title sponsor, which would help increase purses and make it even more attractive to players who did not qualify for the LPGA.

"This is going to open up new markets for them, simply because it automatically opens a door to the LPGA," Ritts said.