LPGA At Augusta The Next Big Step
LPGA commissioner Michael Whan is on to something. Since rescuing the league from the train wreck that was the administration of former commish Carolyn Bivens, Whan has quietly worked the phones trying to get an LPGA event at Augusta National Golf Course. If he pulls it off, he will have cemented his legacy as one of the most effective leaders in any sport.
Even though Augusta chairman Billy Payne lacks the fire and brimstone determination, or stubbornness, of his predecessor, Hootie Johnson, neither he nor any other member of note will throw open the doors to the LPGA unless it is on their schedule and under their rules.
The club would likely mandate the tournament have a limited field and be a major. That’s obvious. The nation’s most celebrated and exclusive golf course cannot be just any weekend stop, it must be the most important date on the calendar. The creation of a fifth major, the Ladies Masters, would guarantee such lofty status while providing what both sides require – a sold-out weekend and big TV ratings for the LPGA – and further solidify Augusta National as being the epicenter of golf.
When, or if, this happens is anyone’s guess. The one thing we can say for certain is that Augusta moves at its own pace, and the more people publicly push for change, the more entrenched the club becomes. Martha Burke, the former head of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, found this out in 2003 when she tried to organize a sponsorship boycott of the Masters. The club responded by broadcasting the tournament without commercials for two years, not to protect itself but its sponsors. By doing so Augusta sent a clear message – it’s too important to ignore and too wealthy to worry about minor things like television advertising.
But this fact doesn’t immediately end any LPGA speculation.
Payne was president of the Atlanta Olympic Committee for the 1996 games and favored Olympic golf at the course. The club’s membership policy and other political bogies kept golf from being included in the games. It was a decision that Payne, at the time, called his biggest personal disappointment.
Adding an LPGA event would benefit Augusta, but the idea is not without its traps. An announcement of the event would bring immediate calls for female membership along with boycotts requested of the tour’s top players. This would once again force Payne, the PGA and LPGA to answer questions about its membership rules. All three parties have said membership is a members issue. Whan has gone as far as to tell Forbes, “I don’t care if they have female members.”
Whan has since gone silent after his very open interview with the business magazine. It’s common speculation that he has done so to ensure he doesn’t alienate Augusta members, but that doesn’t mean he’ll stop trying. He’ll just do it more quietly.
Whan has reinvigorated the LPGA by rebuilding the strained relationships with players and sponsors. The tour is adding events, is getting more attention for its players and is exploding internationally. The only thing left is bringing the tour to Augusta. Political pressure, changing times and Whan marketing skills will likely make this happen in the near future.