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Uncertain future for LPGA

HAVRE DE GRACE, Md. - The 2009 LPGA season has been a farewell tour of sorts. The players bid adieu two weeks ago to the LPGA Corning Classic after 31 years. Tomorrow, they say goodbye to 29 years of McDonald's financial support, the last 16 as title sponsor of the LPGA Championship.

HAVRE DE GRACE, Md. - The 2009 LPGA season has been a farewell tour of sorts. The players bid adieu two weeks ago to the LPGA Corning Classic after 31 years. Tomorrow, they say goodbye to 29 years of McDonald's financial support, the last 16 as title sponsor of the LPGA Championship.

The future does not look bright considering the state of the domestic and global economy. A total of 19 events on the LPGA Tour expire this season, and although officials say the possibility of renewing 14 of those tournaments appears strong, uncertainty permeates the thought of what might lie ahead.

"I think it's on everybody's minds, and everybody is wondering where the bottom is going to come," Cristie Kerr, the tour's leading money-winner entering the McDonald's LPGA Championship, said this week at Bulle Rock Golf Course.

"We as players have to do whatever we can to try and help those tournaments that are in renewal to tip them over the edge to come back and renew. Those are the things we can control. There are so many tournaments up for renewal. It can be pretty overwhelming thinking about it."

LPGA commissioner Carolyn Bivens wanted a number of contracts to expire this year so that the tour could re-sign them to more uniform deals that would increase fees to help the financial health of the association and lead to better benefits for its players.

But no one could have seen this plan colliding with the recession, especially coming after a three-year span during which the tour lost 12 tournaments, including the well-regarded ShopRite LPGA Classic.

Bivens took the ShopRite dates and gave them to real estate developer Bobby Ginn starting in 2007. Tournament executives Ruth and Larry Harrison could not find suitable new dates and terminated the ShopRite after 2006. The Ginn tournament lasted all of two years.

Another issue is the LPGA's wanting individual tournaments to pick up more of the operating costs next year, such as between $50,000 and $100,000 for a scoring system. Implementation of that fee will not happen in 2010, but higher costs for events usually mean less money for charity.

Bivens was at Bulle Rock on Wednesday for meetings but was not available to reporters.

The tour, however, is cautiously optimistic about next year. It has a new 10-year deal with the Golf Channel as its exclusive cable home, something that officials can use to attract tournaments that are still on the fence about renewing, and new ones.

"We needed to get that in place first so you'd know there was a home for our events," said David Higdon, chief communications officer for the LPGA. "These tour renewals were built so that by the time 2010 came around, we would be able to have that in place."

In addition, the tour agreed to a five-year contract with JoongAng Broadcasting Corp., also known as J Golf, as its official Korean media rights partner, a move sure to help the tour's growing global outreach.

Of the tour's 29 events in 2009, 11 of them have or will be held outside the United States. The tour went to Asia earlier this year and enjoyed successful tournaments, but they barely were a blip on the U.S. sports radar.

"I think the benefits [of globalization] outweigh the negatives," Higdon said. "We have to do a better job of making sure that when were are in Singapore or Europe that it resonates, that we make sure that we bring back the excitement to the United States or to Korea and Europe when we're here.

"Strategically, we like where we're at as a U.S.-based entity with a global footprint."

Higdon said that a "two-thirds, one-third" proportion of U.S. tournaments to international tournaments is a "model that's worked for us," and that the number of interested would-be sponsors is about 50-50.

Similarly, the question is there of whether corporations in the United States will be attracted to a roster of multiple nationalities. No American player has won LPGA player of the year since 1994, and just three U.S. players are in the top 10 of the world rankings.

Lorena Ochoa of Mexico has been as close to a dominant player as the LPGA has had recently, having won 23 tournaments since the start of the 2006 season and working on a streak of three consecutive money titles. She is pleasant, courteous, and speaks English well, but not much is known about her off the golf course.

The tour's contingent of Korean players - more than 40 this season - continues to play well, with four in the top 10 of this week's money list.

LPGA Hall of Fame member Beth Daniel, however, doesn't buy the argument that American companies are drawn solely to American players, citing the influence of Annika Sorenstam (of Sweden) and Greg Norman (of Australia) on their respective tours.

"I don't necessarily think that it has to be an American on the top to draw in companies," she said. "I think it just has to be a dynamic personality. I don't buy that it has to be an American. I think anyone that uses that argument that we need Americans at the top for the tour to flourish in America, I think that's a bit of a copout."

Daniel now works for the Golf Channel, which will provide much help in the coming years to the LPGA in marketing its players, with features that introduce them to the viewers and, as Higdon says, "turning golf fans into LPGA fans."

A number of young Americans are prepared to make their mark to assist in the future of the LPGA Tour. Some - Paula Creamer, Morgan Pressel, Brittany Lincicome, Brittany Lang, Jane Park and Vicky Hurst - are younger than 25. Then you have Natalie Gulbis (26) and the "veterans" of the group - Kerr (31) and Angela Stanford (31).

But the most celebrated of the young Americans, even though she hasn't won, is Michelle Wie, 19, technically a tour rookie this season, who has been playing in LPGA events since she was 12.

"Michelle Wie has the ability to take the LPGA from golf fans to sports fans, and that would be huge for us," Higdon said. "She is already showing it. She nearly won her first event in Hawaii. On our Web site, the number [of hits] was our second highest ever for a non-major.

"She creates buzz. She's been great with the media. She's been great with the other players. I find her incredibly appealing. She's funny, smart, attractive, she hits the ball a mile, and she's still young. She's very important to us."

So the pieces seem to be there for the LPGA. Higdon says women's golf is as "good as it's been," and he's confident that sponsors will take notice.

"It's not like we're selling a product that isn't good," he said. "It's great. We all have to weather the recession, but you want to do that with a great product and a marketable product. What we need to do is take this as an opportunity. We're able to get indoors and have conversations."

The players appear ready to do their part.

"If we are asked to go to a pro-am party or to entertain the sponsor, those are things that we can control and do," Kerr said. "I've been trying to do my part, and I know everybody out here has. That's really all we can hope to do as players, and we trust [the LPGA] to take care of the rest."

That is to say, helping players say hello or nice to see you again instead of good-bye.

Going, Going, Gone

Here is a list of the LPGA tournaments that have ceased to be played in the last three years.

Tournament                     Last contested First contested

McDonald's LPGA Championship    2009          1994

LPGA Corning Classic               2009          1979

Fields Open in Hawaii                2008          2006

Ginn Open                            2008          2006

SemGroup Championship             2008          2001

Ginn Tribute                         2008          2007

HSBC Women's World Matchplay    2007          2006

Mitchell Tournament of Champions    2007          1994

ShopRite Classic                      2006          1986

Takefuji Classic                      2006          2000

Chick-Fil-A Charity Championship    2006          1992

Franklin American Mortgage Ch.       2006          2004

Wendy's Championship for Childr'n    2006         2001