WILLIAMSBURG, Va. – Carolyn Bivens walked tall and carried a big stick Wednesday at the Michelob Ultra Open at Kingsmill. It was a Nike stick, to be more precise, and she wielded it with authority.
The LPGA commissioner played an 18-hole round of golf for the first time in five years May 6, and she did it, of all places, in an LPGA pro-am. A nervous Bivens struck her first tee shot roughly 175 yards down the center, observers say, in front of a gallery of players, caddies and staff.
It marked a big step for Bivens, who just two months ago told my colleague Adam Schupak that she’s too vain about her game to tee it up in public.
“I won’t go puff the ball around, and I don’t have time to really practice,” she said.
Bivens decided Saturday to play in this week’s pro-am, leaving little time for preparation. She asked players at the tour’s second annual summit last weekend to work “outside the ropes” and do something that’s not in their comfort zone. The pro-am was Bivens’ way of practicing what she preaches.
Eighteen holes of golf might seem small in the grand scheme of things. But Bivens was acutely aware that a horrid performance could hurt the organization more than help it, though she said that has little to do with the fact that she’s a woman.
“I was just trying not to embarrass the tour or me,” she said.
With all due respect to the commish, it seems there’s more at stake for a female commissioner who goes out and duffs it around with clients. Not only would her skill be questioned, but her overall knowledge of the sport as well. That wasn’t an issue with Bivens, who blended right into the pro-am scene and held her own.
Dressed in her customary all-black attire, Bivens looked the part playing alongside Helen Alfredsson and three other amateurs. She carried a bevy of Nike clubs in a Callaway bag marked “Commish.” Alfredsson, hands down one of the most entertaining smack-talkers on tour, kept things light with a constant stream of barbs aimed at her male playing partners.
Bivens belted out several good tee shots and flirted with the edge of the hole but never got one to drop in the 10 holes I watched. She batted third in the lineup and lost several approach shots to the right. But, overall, she looked pretty good for someone who hasn’t played 18 holes in five years.
“It’s a good golf swing,” said Alfredsson, who helped the Commish with her alignment. “The players know she can play golf.”
This wasn’t a publicity stunt. The LPGA media staff didn’t even mention that Bivens was on the course. There was no press release, and one tournament photographer showed up on the 17th hole to snap a few pictures. This was a far cry from PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem’s media frenzy at Pebble Beach earlier this year.
Bivens first held a golf club at age 23 in an effort to keep up in the business world. When golf suddenly became her business, however, she no longer had time for the game. Bivens had several lessons over the holiday season two years ago with one of my old college teammates, Kelly Sheehan, who was then head pro the Ritz-Carlton in Orlando, Fla. Bivens knocked it around for a few holes but failed to follow through back home in Daytona Beach.
Alfredsson now has paired with at least three LPGA commissioners during pro-am rounds and finds the exercise refreshing. Heather Daly-Donofrio, who works as player liaison for the tour, pushed her daughter in a stroller as she watched Bivens finish the last hole.
“Everybody’s been teasing her all day,” said Daly-Donofrio, who noted there was plenty of advice floating around the practice green when Bivens showed up to putt. Everyone wanted to check out her stroke.
Bivens scored points with the players on Wednesday as well as with her amateur partners, who genuinely seemed pleased to spend the afternoon with the commissioner. They encountered a woman who looked far more relaxed swinging inside the ropes than she does walking outside them.
Bobby Christian, owner of Impact Ventures, has a home in Richmond and recently signed a three-year contract with the Duramed Futures Tour to sponsor two events. Christian, who played in his first LPGA pro-am Wednesday, has three young daughters and saw the Futures Tour as a “great platform for developing leaders.”
He’s impressed with Bivens’ style off the course, calling her a “hard-charging woman” who is “kind of unconventional.” Surely those five hours he spent with the commissioner helped strengthen their relationship.
Rounding out Bivens’ group was Gregory Brown, VP of Choice Privileges for Choice Hotels, and his guest, Pam Thrasher of Swift Hospitality Group.
This marked Brown’s third LPGA pro-am. He also has played in two PGA Tour pro-ams and, like many others, finds the women to be more fun.
“Some of the PGA Tour players are (approachable),” Brown said, “but for a lot of them, it’s business-like or drudgery.”
Bivens now can speak first-hand about the merits of the LPGA’s scramble format. Less pressure leads to more smiles for those corporate execs who, like the commish, have excess rust.
Bivens isn’t sure whether she’ll make another pro-am appearance. She seemed taken aback by the question, though it seems the first attempt was a quiet success.