Titleholders fulfills Whan’s vision for LPGA

LPGA Commisioner Mike Whan at a press conference prior to the 2010 Evian Masters.

LPGA Commisioner Mike Whan at a press conference prior to the 2010 Evian Masters.

Mike Whan still gets goosebumps when he talks about the history of the Titleholders. The idea for this year’s new season-ending event came to Whan on an airplane while he watched a video on the history of the LPGA.

Patty Berg won the inaugural Titleholders -- her first of seven -- in 1937 at Augusta (Ga.) Country Club. The LPGA wasn’t founded until 1950, but winners of previous Titleholders still are considered major champions. They have green jackets to prove it. For his research, Whan went down to the basement of Augusta CC. He returned to his office at Daytona Beach, Fla., inspired, with a clear vision for the future.

“The name (Titleholders) for me suggested that the LPGA, at the end of the day, is made up of a series of partners,” said Whan, who brought back the name but changed the tournament’s format. (No green jacket.)

To fund his vision, Whan called Terry Duffy, executive chairman of the CME Group. Duffy’s experience with LPGA players at his annual pro-am in Naples, Fla., as part of the Global Financial Leadership Conference and as a sponsor of the 2009 Solheim Cup was so positive that he called partnering with the LPGA as a title sponsor a “huge opportunity.” For those unfamiliar with CME, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, Duffy offers this explanation: “We trade more in the first three weeks of the month of January than the New York Stock Exchange does in an entire year.”

The CME Group Titleholders will take place Nov. 17-20 at Grand Cypress Golf Club in Orlando. The winner’s check of $500,000 is second only to the U.S. Women’s Open, making the event a potential game-changer for year-end accolades.

With CME’s pro-am taking place each fall in Naples, Golfweek has learned the 2012 Titleholders likely will move farther south, to the Aerie Course at TwinEagles Club. The course recently was redesigned by Steve Smyers and Patrick Andrews.

Last year’s Tour Championship, also held at Grand Cypress, had a field of 120 players, making it feel more like a run-of-the-mill event than a year-end reward. The entire field couldn’t even get around before darkness without weather delays.

Whan’s solution was to create a season-long qualifying system, where the top three players from each tournament (not otherwise qualified) “punch their ticket” to the season finale. The field maxes out at 69. World No. 1 Yani Tseng, Michelle Wie and Karrie Webb were the first three to qualify from the season opener in Thailand. With eight more events on the schedule, there are 24 spots left to fill. So far, 23 of the top 30 from the Rolex Rankings are in the field.

To help spotlight the folks who pay the bills, Whan wants caddie bibs to display the logo of the tournament from which each player qualified. He also wants each player to walk through a row of trophies on the way to the first tee.

The event will be live on the Golf Channel from 1:30-4 p.m. all four days, and there won’t be a cut. Last year’s event had two cuts, and Yani Tseng worried she might have to come back to the course in jeans on Sunday to accept her Rolex Player of the Year trophy. That won’t be a problem this year.

“It’s already been one of the most talked-about events among the girls,” said Paula Creamer, who qualified at the third tournament of the year, tying for second at the RR Donnelley LPGA Founders Cup.

Last year Creamer, who lives 20 minutes down the road in Isleworth, kicked herself for not coming out more to Grand Cypress to scout the place. She shot 75-77-71 to miss the third-round cut. The central Florida course played firm in early December, and Creamer called the greens “very bouncy.” The small greens and small landing areas set up nicely for Creamer, if she misses it in the right spots.

“I was pretty upset about it because I have no excuse,” she said. “It’s 20 minutes down the road. But I won’t make that same mistake twice, that’s for sure.”

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