LPGA has stars and drama but could use a brighter stage
CHASKA, Minn. — A bold swing landed Maria Fassi in the left rough, beside a tree that restricted her follow-through on her next shot. A second tree partially blocked her view of the green. Fassi, the reigning NCAA Division 1 women’s champion, absently twirled her ponytail as she surveyed her options.
Hitching up her sleeves, she deposited her next shot on the second cut of fringe behind the green, chipped to 5 feet, and made the putt.
One of the roughly two dozen fans in Fassi’s gallery at the Women’s PGA Championship Thursday was Steve Nelson, who raved about her scrambling par. Pulled along by Fassi’s magnetism, Nelson decided to ditch his scheduled recreational round of golf so he could follow her and maybe see a few other players, too.
Nelson watches golf on television, but until he came out to Hazeltine National Golf Club last week, he had no idea women’s golf could be so entertaining.
It’s not Nelson’s fault that he didn’t know any better — nor should the players be blamed. The LPGA’s membership includes Fassi, who is from Mexico; Brooke Henderson, who has the most wins of any Canadian in LPGA or PGA Tour history; Sung Hyun Park of South Korea, who finished second Sunday in defense of her Women’s PGA title; and the weekend’s wire-to-wire winner, Hannah Green of Australia.
They are helping to deliver a product that perhaps has never been more appealing: The past 11 majors have produced 11 different winners, the last four all younger than 24.
And yet the LPGA continues to struggle for exposure. The tour’s primary television platform for the past decade has been Golf Channel, whose coverage of the first two days of the Women’s PGA consisted of three hours from 6 to 9 p.m. On Friday, that window precluded a single live shot of Green, who had finished her round well before the day’s telecast.
The LPGA made a rare appearance on network television over the weekend, with six total hours of coverage on NBC. That was a veritable throat clearing next to Fox’s two 10-hour filibusters during the weekend of the men’s US Open.
“We don’t have enough time to get our casual viewers to fall in love with what’s going on,” LPGA commissioner Michael Whan acknowledged.
The LPGA was in the final year of its 10-year contract with Golf Channel, but Whan said Friday that the deal had been extended two years.
If the objective is to expose the largest possible audience to women’s golf — to capitalize on its emerging young superstars to reel in the casual sports fan — there would seem to be better outlets than a cable network catering to an existing market. Golf Channel might as well be selling chocolate to chocoholics.
“Without the Golf Channel, I’m selling chocolate at a sugar-free convention,” countered Whan, who conceded that not getting the LPGA more network exposure is one of his failings.
“I know I’ve got to fix that,” Whan said, adding, “It’s a missing link to where I thought we would be 10 years later.”
There has been plenty of progress, Whan said.
“In 2010, we had 100 hours of produced TV on women’s golf, and 65 percent of it was live,” he said. “This year we’ll have 500 hours of golf, and 90 percent of it is live.”
Whan said the extension with Golf Channel made sense because it allowed the LPGA to pursue long-term broadcasting rights at the same time as the PGA Tour, which will negotiate on behalf of both entities. He expressed confidence that the PGA Tour would leverage its star power to gain better TV exposure for the LPGA.
The LPGA did not always trail behind, picking up leftover time slots. In 1976, two years before a rookie named Nancy Lopez heightened interest in the LPGA, the tour’s first major, then known as the Dinah Shore, drew higher ratings than the men’s Greater Greensboro Open held the same week.
The LPGA’s greatest ambassador then was an Australian, Jan Stephenson, who was famous not for her success — her three major championships came in the early 1980s — nor her work ethic, even though she shut down the driving range most dusks.
Ray Volpe, the LPGA commissioner at the time, had identified Stephenson as golf’s answer to Farrah Fawcett, the era’s feminine ideal, and he used her to market sex appeal to big-name sponsors. As Stephenson, who was inducted this month into the World Golf Hall of Fame, recently recalled, “I’d get a Telex in my locker at the end of a tournament from Ray, and it’d say ‘There’ll be an airplane ticket for you at the airport, could you fly to New York? I’ve got a potential sponsor.’
“We probably signed 10 12-year contracts that way, just on me wining and dining and playing golf with potential sponsors.”
Those deals set the stage for Lopez’s long-running show.
On the strength of her telegenic personality and her 48 LPGA victories, which included three majors, Lopez broadened the audience, and appetite, for women’s golf.
Since Lopez’s retirement from regular tour play in 2002, the LPGA has looked near and far for someone with both the charisma and accomplishments to commandeer the spotlight in the United States. A teen-aged Michelle Wie came the closest, but injuries stalled her flight, and she spoke poignantly last week of not knowing how much more competitive golf her crumbling body will allow.
Women’s golf does not lack charismatic stars, but they are foreign-born players whose influence is most evident in their homelands. Ariya Jutanugarn, 23, a two-time LPGA Player of the Year and the first major winner from Thailand, is such a big deal there that a movie is being made of her life. Park, who in 2017 became the first rookie since Lopez to win Player of the Year honors, is met by the kind of hysteria in South Korea typically reserved for its pop bands.
Throughout Asia, Whan said, the women routinely outdraw the men.
“So I know it’s possible,” he said.
Last Tuesday, Suzy Whaley, president of the PGA of America, played in a pro-am with Fassi, 21, whom she described as “the next superstar of the LPGA.”
Fassi, a recent graduate of Arkansas, sounded ready for her close-up when she said Thursday: “I like interacting with the people and smiling and making jokes with the people outside the ropes.”
It’s great that Fassi welcomes the spotlight.
But can the spotlight find the LPGA?