ORLANDO, FLORIDA | By the time the first threesome of Amanda Blumenhurst, Mindy Kim and Giulia Sergas – bundled, as they were, in relative anonymity – got to the first tee Thursday morning, it was cold.
The wind-chill factor at the LPGA’s season ending Tour Championship stubbornly hovered in the mid-30s. The breeze at the Grand Cypress Golf Club was stiff. And a 7 a.m. December sun was still hours away from warming anybody’s competitive soul, much less a world class player’s hands.
“Arctic,” was the voluble Christina Kim’s one-word description.
What better time to take the temperature of women’s professional golf?
The only thing missing was frost. And if you listen to the focused and energetic Michael Whan, that’s a start. Whan is the LPGA’s commissioner, and he believes his Tour’s days of being greeted with icy stares and chilly receptions are thawing.
“It was always strange,” Whan told me last month, “to start conversation and hear, ‘Are you limping?’ We don’t get that anymore. We’re not at any kind of risk.”
Make no mistake, Whan is an optimist. But he is not a cockeyed one. After one year on the job in a lurching economy, he can pronounce and spell the word “reality” without shivering. Asked if the recent mid-term elections in the U.S. that showed overwhelming support for America’s Republicans – historically the more golf-friendly political party – Whan said this:
“I don’t know.”
You don’t know?
“I’ve heard more than a few CEOs tell me that, ‘Hey, this election can really help,’ ” Whan said. “And they probably grasp that better than I do. I’m not an economist.” At least not in the sense that John Maynard Keynes, Adam Smith or John Kenneth Galbraith were economists.
But Whan is the LPGA’s chief executive in charge of growth. And as such, he lays the groundwork in the ongoing courtship of title sponsors. He designs and/or approves the plans and he oversees the stratagems.
“We call it the ‘incubator,'” he says. “We’ve got eggs in the incubator. Some of them are about to hatch and some of them are just growing for the first time. I’ve got a lot of eggs at the end of the incubator cycle. But now we’ve got to hatch a few more.”
The best American player of the moment, Cristie Kerr, warns it won’t be easy. “We are not in 1994 where we we had, like, 40 tournaments,” Kerr said on the eve of Sunday’s final round. “It’s hard. The economy, real estate … all of that stuff is not coming back for a long time.”
But for their part, Kerr and her fellow LPGA competitors are weathering the front. And they genuinely appear to be closing ranks in the face of persistent criticisms that range from: The American women need to become more dominant to the Korean women are too dominant.
Six players teed it up at the Tour Championship with a shot at ascending to the No. 1 spot in the Rolex world rankings. Two of those women are Korean. The four others are American, Japanese, Norwegian and Taiwanese.
One of those six, Na Yeon Choi, the best player you may never have heard of, donated a check Wednesday for $30,000 to LPGA-USGA junior golf. Choi’s initials are NYC. Her nickname is “The Big Apple.”
What isn’t disputable is the fact that the LPGA will remain the home to the best female golf worldwide. To a woman, the players insist it’s (start ital.) for (end ital.) the best if they play against the best on a regular basis, regardless of from where those players come. At a pre-tournament press conference, Tour officials gathered the top six at a single podium at the same time. The respect each showed for the other was clear and without grudge.
“We all love to win,” said Kerr. “We all hate to lose. And we all work very hard at our games.”
Hall of Famer Annika Sorenstam recently made it known that she would welcome the LPGA making Orlando the home base for a regular event with her name on it, in much the same manner that Arnold Palmer’s Bay Hill tournament is a staple for the PGA Tour.
And Whan confirmed that representatives for future Hall of Famer Lorena Ochoa are in talks with San Antonio officials that could produce, as early as 2012, a long-term agreement with the LPGA in that Texas city.
Women’s professional golf has a pulse. But there’s always room for improvement.
If you root for the LPGA, you couldn’t help but notice the lack of a title sponsor at the Tour Championship. Kerr mentioned last week the need for more domestic (read U.S.) LPGA events. And if you walked the fairways at Grand Cypress, it was impossible not to wish the Tour policed slow play a little more effectively.
But there is an LPGA TV deal in place. There is no shortage of good young talent. And Whan says a meaningful international team event to complement the Solheim Cup (which is limited to Europe vs. USA) is “coming soon.”
So despite the wintry mornings last week in Florida there is reason to hope that global warming for the LPGA is more than just talk about the weather.