LPGA season begins with more events, optimism

A dry board in the office of LPGA Tour Commissioner Mike Whan is filled with black-and-blue, an appropriate color scheme for a tour that had been taking its lumps over the last couple of years.

The colors are used for the schedule — blue ink for those that are a work in progress, black ink for the done deals.

The board is mostly black these days.

A new LPGA Tour season gets under way this week at Royal Melbourne with the Women's Australian Open, one of four additional tournaments on the 2012 schedule that have helped nudge momentum in a favorable direction.

"It's a blip if we have a nice ramp up and then ball back down," said Whan, who starts his third full year as commissioner. "It took a year to take us from negative momentum to positive momentum, and the next year to turn that positive momentum into success."

He measures success by a 39 percent increase in television viewers in the United States, and by 26 percent overall. While his predecessor, Carolyn Bivens, had a reputation of alienating sponsors with a hardline approach, the LPGA was able to renew eight of the nine tournament contracts that ended in 2011.

It lost one tournament and added five others, including player favorites in Kingsmill, Va., and Toledo, Ohio. The LPGA also renewed 10 of its 11 marketing agreements.

So where was the big swing in momentum?

"If there was one, I missed it," Whan said. "I couldn't tell you that I got on a plane one day and said, 'Today we crossed the bridge.' It's like any small business. If you want to turn your business around, it starts with your customers. Everybody we've added either came through or had dialogue with existing customers.

"If we want more customers, it's not because we're focusing on customers we don't have. It's going to be focusing on customers we do have. Because everybody who signs a long-term deal is going to talk to three of our customers."

Even so, behind any business model are the players. Whan is not lacking in that department.

Six months into his job, Lorena Ochoa without warning walked away from golf to concentrate on her new family and burgeoning foundation. Her slot was taken by a veritable star in Yani Tseng, the 23-year-old from Taiwan who last year became the youngest golfer ever to reach five majors.

"I didn't think I'd win a major. Then, I didn't think I'd win a second major. Now it's five," Tseng said. "It's just crazy."

Tseng won seven times on the LPGA Tour last year — 12 titles around the world — and captured the LPGA player of the year for the second straight year.

Stacy Lewis was the lone American to win a major at the Kraft Nabisco Championship, while Cristie Kerr had a peculiar season in which she failed to win on the LPGA Tour but still wound up second on the money list with nine finishes in the top five.

Paula Creamer remains among the most popular LPGA Tour players and hopes to rebound from nagging injury, while the freshest face on tour is Alexis Thompson, who last year at 16 became the youngest winner of an LPGA Tour event.

Still in the mix is Michelle Wie, who has been spending part of her time on tour and part of her time at Stanford, where she is expected to graduate this year before devoting more attention to the LPGA.

"Michelle at 22 ... whatever she's going to be is going to happen in the next seven or eight years," Whan said.

Whan said Tseng is appealing enough through sheer skill to carry the tour, though he doesn't think that will be the case. The LPGA Tour goes all over the world now, and there are home stars on every continent, from Suzann Pettersen in Europe to Ai Miyazato in Japan.

"Yani is rewriting the record book, but the chase pack is interesting," he said. "I think we're almost past a single-player thing, at least on the LPGA. I think we're so much at a stage where there are regional stars."

The LPGA Tour season begins this week at Royal Melbourne, where just three months ago the PGA Tour staged a successful Presidents Cup that showcased one of the world's best courses.

That introduced a new color to the dry-board scheme — gray.

"The commissioner's 'Hail Mary,'" Whan said. "The Australian Open was always gray."

He couldn't simply sanction the event for the LPGA Tour without keeping it in line with prize money at other tournaments in the Asia Pacific region. But he landed a new title sponsor in Handa with a $1.1 million purse.

The tour spends its opening three weeks overseas in Australia, Thailand and Singapore, before starting its domestic portion of the schedule March 15 in Arizona at the LPGA Founders Cup, which a year ago featured a mock purse. Now, the players keep the money.

Along with adding four tournaments, there no longer are large gaps in the schedule, which also hurt whatever momentum it had. The LPGA Tour will not go more than two weeks without playing.

Plus, it has gotten away from another Bivens idea of taking a consistent time slot on Golf Channel, which meant tape delay in the evening. All the North American events will be shown live this year.

One player who won't be around for the first part of the season is 51-year-old Juli Inkster, who decided to have elbow surgery. She has been around for three decades and eight commissioners, and she likes what she sees.

"He's the perfect guy for the job right now," Inkster said. "I think he's built a foundation with the sponsors and tournament owners. And the players are not complaining, which for us is unbelievable."