2006: Michelob seeks major promotion

Williamsburg, Va.

Is it possible that the LPGA’s major championship lineup could be altered? At least one top-tier regular-season event on the LPGA schedule hopes one day that will be the case, opening discussions with the LPGA to talk about the possibility.

With the LPGA McDonald’s Championship departing CBS for four days on The Golf Channel, high-end LPGA events such as the Michelob Ultra Open and the Ginn Clubs & Resorts Open are hoping the LPGA may be willing to entertain a shift in its major lineup.

“I saw a crack,” said Tony Ponturo, vice president of global media and sports marketing for Anheuser-Busch (Michelob’s parent), referring to McDonald’s change from network to cable and the ramifications of such a move.

However, Chris Higgs, the LPGA’s senior vice president and chief operations officer, says there’s not much of an opening at all – at least for now. Higgs said the LPGA has contracts with the Kraft Nabisco, McDonald’s LPGA and Women’s British Open for “multiple years.” The fourth major, the U.S. Women’s Open, is run by the U.S. Golf Association.

“The LPGA has its existing four majors and we’re very happy with those four majors,” said Higgs. “They each have differing elements to them that makes them unique and special. . . . As much as everyone wants to predict if we’re trying to change our majors, we have preexisting business relationships with the three majors (minus the U.S. Women’s Open) that would preclude anything of the sort.”

LPGA McDonald’s co-founder Herb Lotman, unhappy with a request by CBS to end the 2007 McDonald’s telecast at 3 p.m. so CBS could switch over to the PGA Tour event in Memphis, shifted the event to four days of late afternoon coverage on The Golf Channel (beginning with this year’s event June 8-11).

“There's no question that we prefer that the majors in particular and other tournaments appear on major networks. . . . ” LPGA commissioner Carolyn Bivens recently told The Virginian-Pilot. “We're going to get much more into the ownership and management of our events like the LPGA has done with ADT and Solheim. In the future, we'll make the calls and construct the events the way we feel best serves the LPGA.”

The Michelob Ultra Open’s home course, Kingsmill Resort, was the venue for a PGA Tour event for 22 years. But Anheuser-Busch ended its relationship with the Tour after 2002, opting not to spend $6 million per year for an event saddled with a fall date and lackluster fields. Instead, the decision was made to create a top-level LPGA event in Williamsburg. The $2.2 million purse is the fourth-highest on the LPGA, ahead of three majors.

In April, Michelob exercised a one-year option to extend its LPGA contract through 2007. Michelob decided to extend in part because Bivens had been on the job for a short time, and Ponturo said the company wanted to give her enough time to be more versed in some of the issues important to Michelob.

“We keep having subtle conversations (with the LPGA),” Ponturo said. “What’s the majors makeup look like in the future? What constitutes that? So before we sort of got ahead of ourselves, we said, ‘Let’s go ahead and trigger that option and then start sitting down with her (Bivens) and just sort of understand the process.’”

Lotman said the McDonald’s LPGA has proven its worth.

“Everybody has their own wishes,” he said. “We just go do our own thing. We’ve done it pretty well for 26 years.”

– Jay A. Coffin contributed

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