LPGA, PGA of America announce Women's PGA

Stacy Lewis (left, with Lydia Ko) says the new KPMG Women's PGA Championship will “change women's golf.”
Stacy Lewis (left, with Lydia Ko) says the new KPMG Women's PGA Championship will “change women's golf.” ( Getty Images )

Thursday, May 29, 2014

There has been a lot of talk around the LPGA about how to “elevate” the tour's platform. When Stacy Lewis first joined the tour in 2009, there were 23 events. The LPGA was in survival mode, and Lewis simply wanted more opportunities to play.

The announcement Thursday from the "Saturday Night Live" studio in New York that the LPGA has partnered with the PGA of America to create the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship sent a strong message: A new era is upon us.

Gone is the LPGA’s flagship event, the LPGA Championship, which has been around since 1955. This bigger, better major will take place June 11-14 at Westchester Country Club in Rye, N.Y., with a $3.5 million purse. That’s up from $2.25 million for this year’s event in Rochester, N.Y.

Weekend TV coverage will be live on NBC, and the championship will be held on courses with name recognition.

“I think what’s critical is we’re going to rotate this event,” said Pete Bevacqua, the PGA of America's chief executive. “We really want to bring this event to some of the great golf courses in major markets around the country.”

Bevacqua said his team will do everything it can to make the KPMG Women’s PGA look and feel like the PGA Championship. Kerry Haigh, the PGA's chief championships officer, will set up the course. And eight spots will be reserved for PGA and LPGA club pros to qualify.

“We will evaluate that number after 2015 and see if we should increase it,” Haigh said.

Westchester, the inaugural site of the KPMG Women's PGA, played host to a PGA Tour event annually from 1963 through 2007 (excluding '66), and was the site of the 2011 Senior Players Championship.

“Really I think network TV and venue is what’s going to separate this tournament,” said Lewis, whose nine LPGA victories include two major championships. “We needed to get outside of just the casual golf fan. That’s what network TV does.”

For Lewis, an accounting/finance major at Arkansas, the behind-the-scenes parts of the LPGA have become as exhilarating and meaningful as championship play.

From the beginning, the smart, inquisitive and opinionated Lewis has sought to leave the LPGA in a better place than she found it. Commissioner Mike Whan likes to joke that “every logo on her body is a tournament.” And, aside from Antigua, her clothing sponsor, that’s true.

Some tournaments, such as the Mizuno Classic in Japan and the Manulife in Canada, existed before Lewis signed a contract with those companies. But her relationships with PureSilk (Bahamas), Marathon (Toledo) and KPMG pre-dated tournament title sponsorships. These blue-chip companies tested the waters with Lewis and then brought more money to the entire tour.

“There’s no doubt in my mind we wouldn’t be sitting here today if we hadn’t formed a relationship with Stacy a couple years ago,” said John Veihmeyer, KPMG's global chairman.

Part of Lewis’ contract with KPMG, an auditing firm that also counts Phil Mickelson as a client, is that she hosts clinics for a couple of dozen female executives around the country four times a year. After her victory in Texas last April, Lewis flew directly to St. Louis to host clinics for KPMG and Omega.

“Part of why KPMG brought me on was to help diversify their firm and get more women involved,” Lewis said. “All of the women leave there exchanging phone numbers and they meet up for coffee.”

When Lewis gains a sponsor, she likes to go beyond the logo and make it more of a partnership.

“What do you want to accomplish by signing me?” she asks. “How can I help you?"

Veihmeyer calls what happens when female executives listen to Lewis tell her story “magical.” They listen to the Texan's challenges with childhood scoliosis and how she overcame such difficulties to become the best at her craft, and it resonates.

“A business leader who has overcome all kind of obstacles and impediments to achieve what she has achieved, listening to Stacy talk about what she had to go through to achieve what she's achieved, it's really fun to watch that happen, and it all happens around golf,” Veihmeyer said.

Perhaps the most impactful part of this new venture will take place outside the ropes at the tournament site, as organizers look to gather 300 female leaders from across the spectrum – business, politics, sports – to create the Women’s Leadership Summit. Lewis will sit on the group's board.

“We view the championship tournament as a platform on which we will build a year‑round program,” Veihmeyer said, “... to really make a difference in terms of how we advance and empower women in this country.”

It’s no wonder that Lewis said she has been itching to tell fellow tour pros the news.

Cristie Kerr learned of the announcement as it was unfolding Thursday in New York and was trying to wrap her head around the changes. Like many pros, Kerr expressed disappointment in leaving the Rochester community. The tour has been a mainstay there for decades and annually attracts some of the year’s biggest crowds.

“It’s kind of sad and exciting at the same time,” Kerr said.

Wegmans, the Rochester-based supermarket chain, stepped up when the LPGA was in danger of losing its namesake major and elevated its status from a regular tour stop. It wasn’t a forever deal, though, and players knew this time would come.

Still, Whan offered hope that an event might one day return.

“I think if you look at our history and even in the sort of short term that I've been at the LPGA, we have tried hard to get back to markets we were at before, whether it's Toledo or Hawaii or Alabama,” Whan said. “Markets that had gone away because of sponsorship funds or whatever the issue, but getting back to where we know we have an aggressive fan base.”

Change can be tough, but this unquestionably is a necessary step forward for the LPGA.

When Bevacqua talked about the PGA of America’s commitment to the LPGA, he went far beyond the typical 3-5-year window, calling it a 50-year or a 100-year decision.

“This is something that is going to change the tour,” Lewis said. “It's going to change women's golf.”

And, in an ideal world, so much more.

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