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Money For Something; Chicks For Free

Get a load of this: Professional players – 132 of them, to be exact – will play an official Tour event, competing for no prize money. Sounds like something out of World War II vintage where competitors played for war bonds and a chicken in every pot.

No, this “aha” moment belongs in modern times and these competitors belong to the LPGA Tour. The Tour announced its schedule last week and the third event of the season – the first in the U.S. – will be the RR Donnelley Founders Cup. The players will get no prize money and, yes, you heard that right, believe it or not. Instead, the purse will be donated to Girls Golf, a joint initiative between the LPGA and the USGA to promote the growth of the game with junior girls.

This, of course, was born in the fertile imagination of LPGA commissioner Mike Whan, who could build a side business by giving thinking-out-of-the-box lessons. He presented this idea at a players meeting last June at the State Farm. Let Whan tell it:

“The end of the presentation, there was no discussion,” Whan said. “Everybody stood up and applauded. There was a standing ovation. It was a strange and exciting, just instant reaction.

“When the girls stopped clapping, I said, ‘Do me a favor, and before you sit down next year the night before the Founders Cup and you’re packing your bag, and you’re probably tired and you could use more time with your playing coach and you wondered what the heck did I agree to do, remember why you’re standing here tonight, because what you heard brought you to your feet. Let’s do that once a week for the betterment of the game.’ I can tell you without any hesitation, I’ve received at least 50 e‑mails from 50 different players on their suggestions on how to make the Founders Cup better.”

The event, to be played in Phoenix, March 18-20, will also honor the 13 founding members of the LPGA, and the five living members – Louise Suggs, Marlene Bauer Hagge, Bettye Danoff, Marilynn Smith, and Shirley Spork – are scheduled to be on hand at the tournament.

“I got a voice mail from Marilynn Smith, and she was thanking us for making this such an important priority,” Whan said. “She broke down and cried so much she couldn’t finish her voice mail and apologized. I sent that voice mail to every member of the LPGA. ‘If you’re wondering if we’re doing the right thing, listen to somebody 60 years ago who made it better.’ ”

You can bet that if Tim Finchem had floated such a proposal in front of the PGA Tour membership, he’d be booed out of the building. Tournament professionals won’t scratch their backsides without an endorsement contract. And while they are the best athletes in sports at raising money for charity, rarely do they come off the hip or stroke a check out of their personal accounts.

This time, the women pros are dipping into their collective purse, in both senses of the word, to give back to the game that has been so generous with them. The money will be counted as “official” in terms of the yearlong money list, as well as player of the year and world ranking points.

Critics have said this is a publicity stunt for a damaged Tour that needs all the attention it can get for its slender 25-event schedule. But there is precedent, and it occurred only a few weeks ago. In-Kyung Kim, who won the Lorena Ochoa Invitational in November, donated her entire winner’s check of $220,000 to Ochoa’s charity, among others.

While this announcement has been successful in getting people to notice the LPGA, it’s not the sole reason for the tournament’s being. One gets the sense that Whan is pointing to a higher purpose. He says that the first year of the Founders Cup will generate upwards of $500,000 for Girls Golf, with incremental higher amounts in the following years.

Which leads to the next big thing on the schedule – the renaissance of the Titleholders – which will be the final event of the season in November at Grand Cypress Golf Club in Orlando. The Titleholders was first played in 1937 at Augusta Country Club in Georgia and was, in many ways, The Masters for women. It was an invitational and most of the contestants in the early days were amateurs.

It started offering prize money in 1948, and after the LPGA was founded in 1950, the Titleholders was considered a women’s major championship until its last playing in 1972.

This year’s model will feature the top-three finishers at each of the 24 previous events on the schedule. If the top three in a particular tournament have already qualified, officials will go down the order of finish to select three that haven’t yet qualified.

And the Titleholders doesn’t have a title sponsor. All the other 24 sponsors will contribute to the funding of the tournament. And its winner will receive the biggest first-place check in women’s golf – $500,000. Which hopefully will make up for not getting a payday in Phoenix.

So, it works something like this: The women are playing for official money that they can’t spend, as opposed to the guys who play for unofficial money that they do spend. Go figure that one out, why don’t you?


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