LPGA expands schedule to 27 events in ’12

Yani Tseng after winning the 2011 Wegmans LPGA Championship

Yani Tseng after winning the 2011 Wegmans LPGA Championship

Mike Whan will deliver more in 2012.

The LPGA’s third-year commissioner has boosted the number of tournaments from 23 to 27, adding four full-field events, plus the return of the Jamie Farr Toledo Classic, according to the schedule released late Tuesday. The number of domestic events increased from 13 to 15. Only the State Farm Classic in Springfield, Ill., will not return.

Whan unveiled one big surprise: a return to Williamsburg, Va., for the Sept. 6-9 Kingsmill Championship. Kingsmill, now owned by Xanterra Parks and Resorts, is undergoing renovations. In 2013, Whan plans to restore Kingsmill to its traditional date in May.

“I’m so thrilled to be returning to Kingsmill this year,” said Cristie Kerr, a past champion. “It’s one of my favorite tournaments and it was a shame when it went away a few years ago. I really look forward to going back!”

Kraft Nabisco champion Stacy Lewis said players were growing “skeptical” late last year when no new domestic events were announced. Upon hearing about the 2012 schedule, she said the tour is “moving in a good direction.”

“Most of Mike’s job has been correcting and getting sponsors to see that things are different now,” Lewis said.

Whan hopes to add one more event for this fall, but otherwise plans to look ahead to ’13, when the schedule will feature five majors. Like many players, Lewis appreciates that the tour’s majors are more spread out this year, saying it was easy to come crashing down after the summer stretch because of exhaustion.

The Wegmans LPGA Championship moved two weeks earlier, to June 7-10, allowing more breathing room before the U.S. Women’s Open. The Ricoh Women’s British Open has moved to September to avoid clashing with the Summer Olympics in London. This year’s event will be played for the first time at Royal Liverpool Golf Club in Hoylake, England.

Total prize money for the year increased from $40.4 million to $47 million, with the RR Donnelley Founders Cup, which debuted last year with mock earnings, featuring a legitimate purse of $1.5 million.

Whan keeps moving toward a four-and-one goal: four tournaments in a row followed by a week off. Whan’s ideal LPGA schedule would feature 30-32 events.

“When you see us taking two weeks off, that’s a heart-burning problem for me,” he said.

The new LPGA Lotte Championship on Oahu helps fill a massive hole in April. There’s still room for improvement in May, but at least rookies will have more chances to play. Also, the HSBC LPGA Brazil Cup, an unofficial event, no longer is between two events in New Jersey -- an obvious improvement. There still are plans to make the Brazil Cup an official event in the future.

The LPGA’s audience is growing, too. Golf Channel viewership of the women’s tour in 2011 increased 29 percent from 2010, and rose 38 percent for North American events. Whan attributes that jump to two factors: Fewer tape-delays and better storytelling.

“We were not prepared for what Yani (Tseng) did, but we rallied late,” said Whan, noting the No. 1-ranked player’s 12 worldwide victories last year.

In 2010, only 62 percent of the LPGA’s tournaments were aired live on Golf Channel. Last year, that number jumped to 83 percent. In 2012, all weekend telecasts of North American events will be broadcast live, and at least 90 percent of the overall coverage. That’s huge for the LPGA, considering that domestic events such as the ShopRite (midnight Thursday-2 a.m. Friday) and the State Farm Classic (all four rounds) were tape-delayed last year.

Whan said the competition inside the ropes never has been better, and he points to three main storylines that fans will be eager to follow in 2012: Tseng’s historic rise; Lexi Thompson’s rookie year and Michelle Wie’s life after Stanford.

Now, each has more chances to shine.

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