An Announcement and Its Fallout

My last piece centered on exiting a sport. This one will examine how one athlete went away on her terms and how other players will vie to fill the power vacuum created from this departure. It concludes by focusing on the challenges that the women’s game faces in lieu of this development.

Last week, the LPGA stole golf headlines on a week in which no tournament action occurred. The top female in the world, Lorena Ochoa, announced her retirement from the game. The news shocked the golf world. After all, Ochoa is only twenty-eight years of age and has dominated the sport for several years. Her retirement came exactly three years after she ascended to the top ranking in women’s golf. A press release and a subsequent news conference changed the pecking order for this game. Now, the LPGA is wide open. Who will replace Ochoa as the game’s best? How will the Tour respond to this additional obstacle? This is another unexpected curve that surprised new commissioner Michael Whan as he continues his first year on the job. The Tour has never faced greater challenges. Now, it is without its marquee name. The soft speaking Mexican superstar won over crowds with her excellent play. Last week, she spoke loud and clear. Her announcement will reverberate throughout the game for months to come.

Few players live up to the hype. Lorena Ochoa had a world of expectations after a stellar collegiate career at the University of Arizona. She won national collegiate player of the year in both her seasons as a Wildcat. In 2001, after her first national player of the year award, Mexican president Vicente Fox awarded her the national sports award—becoming both the youngest recipient of that prize as well as the first golfer to accomplish this feat. Having no more challenges to conquer as an amateur, Ochoa turned pro. She spent a year on the Futures Tour, the LPGA developmental circuit that grooms young talent and then jumped onto the big leagues in 2003. She immediately made her mark on the top tour, earning top tens in eight events. The next year she won twice. Two years later, she became the hottest player in the world. Her year began with a bang at the first major. A remarkable round of 62 catapulted her into a tie for the lead after 72 holes. Despite losing to Karrie Webb in a playoff, she announced that she was a contender for the game’s major championships. For the next year plus, golfing fans viewed her as the game’s best player who hadn’t won a major.

During this period, she replaced Annika Sorenstam as the top ranked woman in the world. Ochoa got the major monkey off her back during the summer of 2007. She captured the Women’s British Open at St. Andrews, the home of golf. The following April, she grabbed her second major at the Kraft Nabisco. The next week, back home in Mexico, Ochoa won again. Her victory at the Corona Championship gave her enough points to qualify for the LPGA Hall Of Fame.

And then, the fire went out. Ochoa got engaged in 2008 and married in 2009. Her play faltered. Her attention turned to her family. Throughout 2009, her performance slipped. She didn’t factor in any of that year’s majors. Jiyai Shin became the hottest player on the planet. She won the tour’s money title and nearly supplanted Ochoa as the player of the year. The Mexican star nipped Shin at the Tour Championship last fall in Houston and, by the narrowest of margins, reclaimed this title.

Still though, many viewed Shin as the heir apparent. Ochoa’s faulty play—that is, she last won in April 2009 and played mediocre in the game’s top events— coupled with Shin’s series of brilliant performances led many to wonder if the Korean youngster would replace Ochoa as the queen of woman’s golf.

The next few months will answer this question. Who will follow Ochoa? The Mexican legend has ridden off into the sunset. She values her family and said that her new marriage (to Andres Conesa) had become her top priority:  “We want to have a family. I can tell you I am the happiest woman in the world,” she said in her retirement address.

The logical choice is Shin. At twenty-one, she has tremendous talent and fierce determination. She rose to No. 2 in the world based on her 2008 British Open title as well as her sterling play last year. Her good form carried over into the new year. Through four events, she racked up three third place finishes and sits sixth on the money list. Her scoring average of 70.69 (strokes per round) is the tour’s fifth best.

Many consider the Norwegian, Suzann Pettersen, as a likely candidate to claim the top spot. Unlike Shin, Peterson is fit and hits the ball a long way. Eyes gravitated to her during last fall’s Solheim Cup (a biennial match between European and LPGA stars). She hit the ball with the might of Michelle Wei and had great touch around the greens. A week later, she kept up her brilliant play. She tied for second at the Safeway Classic and then won her next event at the CN Canadian Women’s Open. Her athletic build and her brilliant ball striking abilities make her a great contender to succeed Ochoa.

Several Americans have an opportunity to make a leap forward. The top ranked U.S. player is Christie Kerr. The twelve time tour winner and 2007 US Open champion has a great short game and may be the best putter in women’s golf. She nearly grabbed a second Open title last year. Her length, or lack thereof, may hinder her prospects.

Two young guns have great prospects as well. Paula Creamer, the twenty-three year old, had a rough 2009 as illness ailed her and forced her off the course for several months. Thumb surgery will keep her out of action until this June. Still though, the future seems bright for this youngster. She won four events in 2008 and played a leading part in the US victory at the Solheim Cup. Another key participant in that affair was the one-time teenage phenom, Michelle Wie. Selected as a captain’s pick for the competition, Wie stole the show. She had a 3-0-1 record for the week and made a series of putts that helped bring home the trophy. A few months later, she grabbed her first career victory at the Lorena Ochoa Invitational in Mexico. With her astounding length, and improved short game, Wie has all the makings of a golfing superstar.

Michael Whan, the new LPGA commissioner, hopes one of these American stars become the game’s top player. No American has finished the year as won player of the year honors since Beth Daniel in 1994 nor has an American been a leading money winner since Betsy King in 1993.

The late 1990s saw a revolution in the women’s game. Starting with Annika Sorenstam, foreign players began dominating the LPGA. Sorenstam jumped on the scene at the 1995 U.S. Women’s Open. She became a number one player. A few years later, Se Ri Pak jumped on the scene and grabbed the 1998 Women’s U.S. Open and LPGA championships. This started an Asian boom that has altered the tour. A year later, Karrie Webb (Australia) supplanted Sorenstam as the game’s best and went on a bit of a roll. She carried her stellar play until 2001, when Sorenstam reasserted herself as the game’s star. Her record from 2001-2008 was fabulous. She won eight majors and forty-nine events. Ochoa replaced her as the top female in 2007. The current top ten rankings illustrate this point. International players littered the top ten rankings (from 2-8): Jiyai Shin (Korea), Yani Tsang (Taiwan), Suzann Pettersen (Norway) Ai Miyazato (Japan), Anna Nordqvist (Sweeden), and Karrie Webb (Australia). Christie Kerr is the top ranked American (no. 6), followed by Michelle Wie (no. 9) and Angela Stanford (no. 10).

This influx of foreign players, many of whom spoke little or no English, led then commissioner Carolyn Bivens to demand that all players learn the language. This proposal went nowhere, and that coupled with Bivens’ inability to govern the LPGA through tough economic times, led players to mutiny last June at the Women’s Open. Bivens’ resigned and the Tour began looking for a permanent head.

The LPGA awarded this position last autumn to forty-four year old Michael Whan. The new commissioner assumes the job at a most difficult time. Since 2008, the tour has contracted from 34 tournaments to 25. A dismal economic climate saw several tournaments go under—including the Corning Classic, a mainstay tour stop from 1979-2009. This year, only nine events are on American soil. The tour is currently in the midst of a start-and-stop stretch. There are only four tournaments between now and the LPGA Championship, the last week of June.

These challenges persist. Whan must repair sponsor relationships, hindered by the Bivens’ era, build his product despite the loss of the game’s top player, and shepherd the Tour through the most difficult time since its founding years. To do that, he needs exciting personalities. Last fall’s Solheim Cup showed great promise. Engaging personalities won over fans on site as well as television viewers at home. Players like Christina Kim talked to the cameras and showed some personality.

This common touch is essential. Fans must be able to relate to the competitors. The distant, aloof player must become more fan conscious and corporate conscious. Top talent liven up the event. Smile, wave at the crowd, sign autographs. Tour members must do all these things and more to improve corporate relations in 2010.

Americans stepping up and filling the power vacuum left by Ochoa would also help. Women’s golf has suffered the same fate as men’s tennis over the last decade. International stars have become the top performers. No American tennis star has rivaled the exploits of Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal. So, American viewers tuned out. They’ve done the same with ladies’ golf. To win back (larger market share) the Americans must perform.

Who will answer the call? Someone will capitalize on Ochoa’s retirement and claim the world’s top ranking. Right now, questions linger. There are plenty of those to toss around. The players begin providing answers to these queries when the Tour tees off next week at the Tres Marias Championship.

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