LPGA’s U.S. opener: Will they play for free?

Karrie Webb, right, hits a shot during the fourth round of the 2009 J Golf Phoenix LPGA International at Papago Golf Course.

Karrie Webb, right, hits a shot during the fourth round of the 2009 J Golf Phoenix LPGA International at Papago Golf Course.

The LPGA released its 2011 schedule Jan. 6, and there’s a domestic event on tap with an interesting twist: Players will play for free.

The inaugural Founders Cup, designed in the spirit of pioneering LPGA founders, will be a charity-driven event in which players receive financial help for travel expenses, but don’t take home a paycheck. The three-day tournament will be in Phoenix at the JW Marriott Desert Ridge on March 18-20, kicking off the tour’s domestic schedule. The move fills a key market for the LPGA, which attracted record crowds at nearby Superstition Mountain when Safeway was sponsor of the former event.

Players still would receive official “money” and points toward rankings, the Hall of Fame and season-ending awards. They’d just give whatever money they earned back to charity.

It will be interesting to see what kind of traction this event has with players – i.e., will top players show up? It’s not as if the tour is operating from a position of strength. After two limited-field events in Asia in February to start the year, more than half of the tour will begin its season playing for free. Still, it’s an interesting concept, and with the right cause, could spark media attention. The three-day event will be televised.

In addition, the Tour Championship will be replaced with a season-ending Titleholders, which scraps the bloated 120-player field. The Titleholders will consist of the top three players from each qualifying event. If a high finisher already has qualified, the tour would skip down to the next top finishes to get three from each week. The event will be held Nov. 17-20, a welcome move from its December finish in 2010.

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