LPGA's ANA Inspiration looking at date change due to conflict with Augusta National amateur event

Jin Young Ko Kelvin Kuo/USA TODAY Sports

LPGA's ANA Inspiration looking at date change due to conflict with Augusta National amateur event

Golf

LPGA's ANA Inspiration looking at date change due to conflict with Augusta National amateur event

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When Augusta National announced a year ago it would hold an amateur women’s tournament in 2019 the same week as the LPGA’s ANA Inspiration, officials of the LPGA major championship began 12 months of wondering what impact the new event would have on their tournament.

A year later, the reality of the August National Women’s Amateur and its impact on the ANA Inspiration seem clear to tournament producer International Management Group and sponsor All Nippon Airways: lower TV ratings, lower attendance, a concerned title sponsor and increased talk of moving the ANA Inspiration away from its traditional date during the first week of April.

“At this point, I think it’s 50-50 we stay, 50-50 we move,” said Chris Garrett of IMG, who serves as tournament director for the ANA Inspiration at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage.

Any move of the tournament, potentially two weeks later into April which could conflict with the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, would need the cooperation of the LPGA, Mission Hills Country Club and broadcast partner Golf Channel and would require some changes for other LPGA spring tournaments as well.

But the fact that ANA and IMG are floating the idea of a date change for the 48-year-old major championship shows the level of frustration and disappointment they have over the performance of the event in light of the ANWA debut this year.

“If I am a tournament sponsor and I am ANA and looking at coverage that was given to ANWA by Golf Channel and certain media outlets, I can understand their concerns that we are golf’s first major and they are feeling overshadowed by an event in its first year,” Garrett said.

ANA has sponsored the major since 2015 and raised the purse to $3 million this year. The airline signed a three-year extension this year through 2022.

Garrett admits that a date change might not be possible as early as 2020 because of all the moving parts involved in the LPGA schedule and TV contracts.

Contacted by the Desert Sun, an LPGA spokesperson said the LPGA had no comment on a potential date change until the LPGA had a chance to review the 2019 tournament with ANA, which should come in May. Garrett added that a move might not be the best answer for the LPGA event.

“From my standpoint, if you were asking me personally, I think we are OK on the date that we are on, at least as it turned out,” Garrett said. “We just can’t move if we are not moving to a better date.”

Even if a date change is needed, there are no easy answers for when to move the tournament.

Moving back into March potentially impacts LPGA events in Phoenix and Carlsbad. An earlier date might mean less live coverage from Golf Channel – which provided 40 hours of tournament and other live coverage of the LPGA major this year – against the PGA Tour’s WGC-Dell Match Play Championship. Moving earlier might also be a problem for Mission Hills Country Club, which would be in the middle of its membership season.

A move later into April would require at least a two-week move, because moving just one week would place the ANA up against the Masters, which no tournament would try.

Playing the week after the Masters would avoid some of the conflicts of March, but it would also put the ANA Inspiration against the first week of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. That could cause traffic and hotel problems for the ANA. A move deeper into April also means the tournament could be played in hotter temperatures.

“I’m not convinced moving to after Augusta (the Masters) is a better date,” Garrett said. “We’d be up against Coachella, Stagecoach, the number of golf fans in the desert has decreased, your volunteer base has gone home.”

Talk of a date change might not have been considered at all had tournament attendance and TV ratings been better in 2019.

Garrett, in his first year as tournament director of the ANA Inspiration, knows shrinking galleries and struggling ratings have been issues for the tournament for years. The LPGA is constantly working  for ratings for any event. But Garrett estimated galleries were down 10 percent in 2019 from 2018 and well short of a hoped-for 40,000 for the week.

ANWA earned a 0.9 rating and 1.19 million viewers on NBC, making it the most-watched women’s golf event on TV since the 2016 U.S. Women’s Open. The ANA Inspiration, on the other hand, saw a 42 percent drop in ratings for Golf Channel. Sports Media Watch reported that Sunday’s ANA broadcast on April 7 drew 194,000 viewers, down from 437,000 in 2018 and 551,000 in 2017.

Garrett points out the last two years might have been anomalies in ratings for the LPGA major because of an eight-hole playoff in 2018 and a final-round penalty controversy involving Lexi Thompson in 2017.

The impact of ANWA on the ANA Inspiration was even on the minds of the LPGA players in Rancho Mirage this year. Some top amateurs had to make a choice between which tournament to play. Three of the top five amateurs in the world rankings played in the ANA Inspiration.

“It’s unfortunate really that they have to make that choice,” said Stacey Lewis, the 2011 ANA champion. “They shouldn’t have to. I would love to see the Augusta Women’s National Amateur played at a different time of year, one, for the girls and their college schedules, and, two, that maybe they could get a full tournament on Augusta National.

“Get a couple practice rounds, have a three-round tournament,” Lewis added. “The week before the Masters, they’re very restrictive about the number of people they allow on the golf course. I would like to see that tournament played at a different time of the year so they don’t have to make that choice.”

Fred Ridley, chairman of Augusta National, said during the Masters this month that his club was proud of the first ANWA but did not announce any specifics for the 2020 event. Ridley added that other than the Masters, Augusta National has focused on amateur events, meaning an LPGA event at the Georgia course isn’t in the plans.

A date change might be like trying to work an evil Rubik’s Cube, knowing that one good move for one partner might produce a bad result for another partner. But Garrett can’t rule out the possibility of a date change.

“If I said zero (percent chance), it would be disingenuous,” Garrett said. “I don’t anticipate a date change, but we have to explore all the possibilities for the tournament and our sponsor. If moving the dates makes a better situation for those parties, we have to consider it.”

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