2004: LPGA can capitalize on this Open

South Hadley, Mass.

There are no apologies needed for women’s golf and the LPGA. Anyone who still thinks female golfers are less exciting than their male counterparts must surely have missed the action at this year’s U.S. Women’s Open at The Orchards.

The event was a rousing success.

It attracted the largest crowds in the championship’s history – nearly 120,000 by week’s end. They were drawn to a lovely, if previously unheralded golf course in an idyllic New England college setting that is straight out of a movie set.

The big question now is what the LPGA does with the goodwill, public attention and positive feedback associated with this event. Can this segment of the pro game ever become more than a trailer at the bottom of the sports highlight screen and move to the center of the American sports landscape?

Not that women’s sports ever have fared well with the American public. Only tennis has achieved something close to gender equity, largely because the women’s game is more oriented to serve-and-volley and inherently better to watch than the men’s brute power game based on overpowering serves.

What better place, however, for showcasing the women’s national championship than a golf course, The Orchards, part of one of the country’s most distinguished women’s colleges, Mount Holyoke? The course looked great on television and drew praise from the players, the media and U.S. Golf Association officials. The southern New England market proved that it’s a good sports area that will turn out for women’s golf.

Having Michelle Wie on hand certainly helped. So did the presence of 15 other teen-agers, some of them still in high school.

Part of the success of The Women’s Open, which is conducted by the USGA, can be attributed to the momentum brought into the event by the LPGA. Commissioner Ty Votaw points to a policy instituted last year whereby a player in the top 90 on the money list is obliged to play every event on tour at least once every four years. The result, he says, is stronger fields that are deeper and more competitive each week.

“In seven of our first 14 events this year, we’ve had all 10 of the top 10 money winners playing,” Votaw says.” The effort is designed to avoid a problem plaguing the PGA Tour, namely regularly scheduled events with weak fields that are essentially second-tier tournaments.

It helps having a newer, younger generation of marketable players on hand, as the LPGA now does. They bring with them swing trainers, high-tech coaching, athleticism and enthusiasm, and give the LPGA an entirely different image. From a marketing standpoint, the key is that these woman not only look like winners, they play like them, too.

Many of them also are foreigners, which can cut both ways when it comes to selling the LPGA. To some, the presence of so many golfers from Korea poses a problem of public identification. The matter of fan recognition isn’t helped by the way modern coaching techniques promote a joyless, self-contained style of play in which emotions are suppressed.

But for every tightly wrapped LPGA golfer, there’s a Jennifer Rosales dancing around colorfully in her form-fitting designer clothes and making the crowd feel good about how she’s playing. Besides, when you have 14 countries represented among the 66 players who made the cut at the U.S. Open, you’ve opened global marketing potential. That might not sell in nativist America, but it does well in a multicultural world.

For years, the Damocletian sword hanging over the LPGA was the problem of presumed sexual identity. That attitude is changing, witness the proliferation of gay-themed television shows and the legalization of same-sex marriages here in the Open’s host state. It’s no secret that a significant share of the LPGA following comes from the lesbian community. In that sense, holding a U.S. Women’s Open in a college community like South Hadley-Amherst-Northampton, Mass., that’s so famously gay and lesbian friendly was a stroke of genius, whether intended or not.

It’s 2004. There’s no reason to hide gender identity – and no need to flaunt it, either. What counts is the quality of golf, and the quality of the competition. The LPGA needs to focus on the platforms it chooses and the quality of competition. Too many of its courses have been inferior, poorly maintained and set up in a dull manner.

The lesson of this year’s U.S. Women’s Open, by contrast, is that a fine golf course in an interesting setting can draw enthusiastic crowds. There’s much to be proud of in seeing a whole new, brightly clad generation of golfers doing battle with the established stars.

OK, so the veterans won, thanks to Meg Mallon, Annika Sorenstam and Kelly Robbins showing the likes of Rosales and Wie the value of experience.

It all makes for good theater among interesting characters, which is all the LPGA needs to worry about.

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