What’s With The LPGA Tour?

Did you know that the LPGA Tour is launching its second major of the year today? Neither did I until I was casting around yesterday for things that needed attention. It’s the Wegmans LPGA Championship and they’re playing in the outskirts of Rochester, New York, on the Locust Hill Country Club in Pittsford.

It’ll be a full field of 150 players and all the best players in the world will be there. But here, encapsulated in a question to World No. 1, Yani Tseng, is the crux of the work the LPGA Tour still has to do:

Q. Rory McIlroy is 22 years old and won his first Major on Sunday and golf is falling all over to proclaim his greatness. You are 22 years old and you have 3 Majors. I know it’s apples and oranges comparing the two tours, but do you feel a little bit slighted?

That’s one I haven’t won yet, the U.S. Open. I was very excited to see that. I think it’s great for golf. To see the young people winning the U.S. Open by eight shots, that’s really amazing. I watch on TV, I tell myself, oh, because we have U.S. Open coming up next two weeks, I tell myself maybe I can do that, too.

I thought she handled that question very deftly, a function, no doubt, of all the effort she’s put in trying to learn English. That and the fact that she has the same endearing lack of pretentiousness as McIlroy himself, as I had a chance to find out when I interviewed her at the Founders Cup in Phoenix this year.

But the interviewer is right: the LPGA Tour just isn’t getting its due. Part of it is that they don’t have dedicated television slots like they used to. When half the tournaments are overseas, it’s a little harder to manage that. But they also suffer from the increasing popularity of the PGA Tour. On their bigger tournaments, not only do they have the 3-hour broadcast window on the “network,” sometimes the Golf Channel picks up an hour and a half or so of play at the front end. So by the time the golf fanatics labor through a four and a half hour broadcast—plus the Golf Channel pre-game and follow-up shows—they’ve had their fill of golf for the day. The Champions Tour suffers similarly. So it’s not so much a matter of inferior products for those two tours as it is the ponderous success of the PGA Tour.

The problem with that is that the golfers most likely to be attracted to the LPGA Tour product are the fanatics because they understand the game and the nuance that elite players bring to the game. The women of the WNBA suffer from the same kind of comparison with the NBA. But there the difference in skill sets is obvious and limited by physical abilities; you just don’t see too many dunks in the WNBA. It’s a different game.

Less informed players tend to think of the LPGA Tour as the Powderpuff Derby too. But, as Tseng’s questioner suggests, it is a little bit of the old apples and oranges conundrum. It’s men on the one hand and women on the other. It’s longer courses versus shorter courses. But it’s still precision golf beyond almost all amateurs’ capabilities. And because of the proportionately shorter courses, the game looks the same in the air, where the WNBA doesn’t.

As I said when I was covering the Founders Cup, if you haven’t been to an LPGA Tour event, you have to go. There is no substitute to seeing the speed and grace of elite athletes in person. While it may be easier and cheaper on television, it’s better in person. You just have no sense of the clubhead speed on television. Paula Creamer was the one who got me. I described a tee shot she hit that drew an exclamation from an older man standing right behind the tee box. “Whoa!” was all he had to say, because that captured the whole of Miss Girl-Next-Door smashing the bejesus out of the ball. She may only average 245 yards on her drives, but because of course proportionality, it looks the same as a man’s drive. There’s nothing like a pure drive hanging in the air.

But it’s not just her. World No. 2, Christie Kerr has a wide stance and a kind of one-piece swinging motion, and she is tiny, but I never saw her miss a shot in her nine-hole practice round. Solid shots and pure ball flight. And she finished 4th.

Of course we all know about Michelle Wie, she who once had dreams of playing on the PGA Tour and had players like Ernie Els and Fred Couples suggesting that she was that good. For now, she’s content to earn her spurs on the LPGA Tour and is currently No. 10 in the world…all the while carrying a full academic load at Stanford. One wonders what she’ll be capable of once school is finally out for good in March of next year.

And then we have Stacy Lewis. Never heard of her? She had her breakthrough win—I’ll say!—when she hauled off the trophy and the cash at the year’s first major, the Kraft Nabisco Championship in Rancho Mirage, California. A very big deal. I had a chance to watch her play in person at the Founders Cup too. She was paired with my dark horse superstar, Gerina Piller, the Big Break alum. I wanted to see Piller play because of her reputation for hitting the ball a long way, but petite Stacy kept up with her the whole day. The other thing I like about Lewis is her spunk. In the Fall of 2008, before she was exempt on Tour, she launched a “Let Stacy Play” website to get the two last sponsor’s exemptions for which she was eligible that year. Who would want to go to Q-School if you could avoid it by playing your way onto the Tour?

And then we have the next new phenom, 16-year-old, long-hitting Lexi Thompson, playing on a sponsor’s exemption this week. School’s out for the summer, why not? Well, there is no reason why not. As this girl gets herself settled in, she’s going to give Michelle Wie a run for her money. Think I’m overstating her case? If you missed my post, “Shooting Star,” back in early May, you might want to give it a quick skim. I wrote it because she was tied for the lead on Sunday morning. At 16. She wasn’t able to finish it off, but I’m willing to wait on that kind of talent.

Or how about Jiyai Shin? If you can get beyond her cultural stoicism, you basically have the LPGA Tour’s version of “Iron Byron,” the mechanical machine the U.S.G.A. and equipment manufacturers use to test clubs and balls. Her consistency and precision is so good it’s almost boring. Maybe that’s it: because her ball striking is so good, people assume it’s easy. “Hey, Jiyai, hit a couple into the tree line once in a while will you?”

Another player I follow regularly is Na Yeon Choi. She’s a quiet, little bit of a thing with a smooth, effortless swinging motion that has made her $4.5 million in just these first 3½ years of her career. $1.9 million of that came from last year where she won twice and only missed one cut. One! And there she sits, No. 5 in the world, and most people have probably never heard of her.

And I guess the other way to truly appreciate how good these players are is to do a quick inventory of all the women players in your life you know, the club champion, whoever, and choose the best one of them to play with day in and day out. And as great as that experience might be—to play with a really nice player—it wouldn’t begin to approach what it would be like if that woman was an LPGA Tour player. They’re that good.

Plus, there’s a lot to be learned from masters wherever you may find them.

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