Sneak Peek: This story will appear in the Sept. 23 issue of Global Golf Post.
Many people will balk at the timing – just two days after Europe’s dramatic Solheim Cup victory at Gleneagles – but the Ladies European Tour announced Tuesday that Mark Lichtenhein, the man they asked to step in as their acting CEO in 2017, will not have his contract renewed after 30 September. They will be calling on Alex Armas – one of 17 or so previous CEOs who have been in place since the LET began in 1978 – to hold the fort until they find a full-time replacement.
To be ruthlessly honest, the timing is atrocious in that Lichtenhein was entertaining promoters and potential golf-federation sponsors at Gleneagles. You wonder what those sponsors – and other sponsors in the making – will be thinking now, especially when they would be looking for a measure of stability within the organisation.
True, there are those LET players who believe that Lichtenhein has been holding them back and been less than dynamic in the matter of finding new tournaments. Yet at the same time, there are others who feel that he has not had the praise he deserves for steadying the ship following on from the somewhat disastrous reign of Ivan Khodabakhsh, his predecessor.
In a press release announcing the decision, the LET thanked Lichtenhein for his achievements whilst making him “a lifetime Honorary Member of the Ladies European Tour.” The latter is something Lichtenhein appreciates while wondering quite why they are not more concerned with the aforementioned question of continuity.
“Of course they’re in a hurry to get more tournaments. And of course they’re not thinking about where the tour is going to be in four or five years’ time … they want things to happen now.” – Mark Lichtenhein
Trouble has tended to stir in the ranks in every Solheim Cup year, with the players rising as one to demand more tournaments and more prize money. The kind of facts and figures being aired on Sunday night, for example, did not stop at the 14½-13½ winning scoreline; as had been happening for months, people were reiterating how unfair it was that while the LPGA’s prize money had shot over the $70-million mark for the first time this year, the LET are currently playing for not much more than $13 million. And how it was hardly acceptable that the LPGA should have 33 tournaments to the LET’s current 20.
Lichtenhein can understand where the players are coming from. “Of course,” he said, “they’re in a hurry to get more tournaments. And of course they’re not thinking about where the tour is going to be in four or five years’ time … they want things to happen now.
“But I was never in a position to just sit there saying, ‘Yes, yes, of course you deserve to have this,’ and that’s because it’s not how these things work. What’s happened at Gleneagles helps, of course it does, especially when we had a result like we did. But we’re not selling someone hitting great 5-irons; we’re dealing in events and, when it comes to selling events in Europe, it’s not that easy. It’s not a case of one size fits all; some countries want one thing, some another.”
If the players weren’t in such a hurry, they would maybe have more time to digest a few details regarding Lichtenhein’s achievements. Firstly, he has stabilised the LET’s finances to the point where there has been a million-pound swing to the good; the organisation is back in the black. At the same time, he has updated what was a hopelessly outdated 40-year-old constitution – and added tournaments in Jordan, Spain and the Czech Republic.
The French Open is back on track with a freshly signed extension taking care of a further four years and more in the way of prize money. And there are three-year extensions for tournaments in Morocco and India, again with increased prize funds. Another of Lichtenhein’s attainments has been to introduce a level of flexibility, which went a-missing in the last regime. When, for instance, the players suggested that a Moonlight Classic in Dubai would never work, he pushed ahead with it – and it fitted the sponsors’ requirements to perfection. The same applied to the pro-am format in Saudi Arabia. The players were not happy at one more restricted-field event but, as Lichtenhein said, the alternative was no event.
“Mark has done a great job in steadying the ship and mending bridges. He’s corrected what was a difficult, delicate situation bequeathed by the last CEO.” – Marta Figueras-Dotti
England’s Felicity Johnson is one of the more senior LET players who can understand both sides of the story. A two-time winner on the LET and a tour player for 12 years, Johnson said on Sunday that she can make a living in that she qualifies for most of the restricted-field events. “It’s the younger players you have to worry about,” she added. “Some of the rookies who aren’t getting many playing opportunities are unable to make hay at what should be a key time in their golfing development. They sometimes have to drop out of the game without ever finding out how good they might have become.
“I am able to be patient but patience is not something you’re going to get from the young ones. They don’t want to hear about how badly placed we were until only recently – and how far we’ve had to come to get to where we are at the moment.”
“Mark has done a great job in steadying the ship and mending bridges,” said Marta Figueras-Dotti, chairman of the LET’s board and a past LET and LPGA winner. “He’s corrected what was a difficult, delicate situation bequeathed by the last CEO.”
The Spaniard hinted at changes last weekend when she said that the tour might need “extra help” going forward. She said that she, like Lichtenhein, had been having meetings with golf federations and potential sponsors throughout last week although, from the way she was talking, it seemed that her meetings were removed from his. She indicated that news of potential changes would be given to the players in the next couple of months and that, in the interim, she would be asking them to stay patient. All of which makes it still more improbable that the departure of the CEO was such an immediate and ill-timed affair.
Lichtenhein is even now being headhunted to help with the revival of another organisation – namely one of the Continental golf federations. Also, there is no question that the work he has done for the Sports Rights Owners Coalition will grow. The SROC is an association which he continued to assist throughout his time with the LET when the LET never indicated that a full-scale position awaited following the end of his contract. “I didn’t seek a contract renewal,” he confirmed Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Figueras-Dotti has bad news to deliver to some among her players: “The time has come when those down at 150th or so in our rankings should be asking themselves whether they should be out here.”
Dame Laura Davies, when she heard the news of Lichtenhein’s departure confirmed, sounded a bit doubtful about it all. “I’m not as involved with the LET as I was but Mark seemed like he was doing an OK job to me. I’ve always liked him and I wish him well.”
Mark Lichtenhein (right) shares a moment with LPGA commissioner Mike Whan prior to the Solheim Cup. Photo: Andrew Redington, WME IMG via Getty Images
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