Golf / Sports

LPGA commissioner sees more events, bigger pay days ahead

PHILADELPHIA -- LPGA commissioner Michael Whan likes what he and his organization have done to increase the number of tournaments and the amount of prize money available to the world's best women golfers. But he is rarely, if ever, satisfied.

The LPGA Tour is up to 32 tournaments this season, compared with just 23 three years ago. Long midseason breaks in the schedule are a thing of the past. Total purses have increased to $56.5 million from $48.8 million last year. Interest and television ratings in the United States are on the rise thanks to a series of fine performances by young American players.

But for Whan, 49, in his fifth season in the commissioner's office, the work continues to strengthen the numbers for events and prize money. Barely more than half of the tournaments, 17 of 32, are based in the United States, 18 if you count the International Crowns, a Solheim Cup-style competition among countries.

Whan, however, hopes to improve that number.

"Our home is the United States and a lot of players from all over the world have moved here and made this their home," Whan said last week in a telephone interview from LPGA headquarters in Daytona Beach, Fla. "They want to play here even though they want to have some homecomings back where they're from. So we've really made a commitment to make sure our North American schedule is built out.

"The overwhelming majority of our growth, both in terms of the incremental moneys available and the incremental opportunities to play, have been here at home."

Whan said there is room for "one or two" more tournaments on the schedule. Those may come in the United States at the start of the 2015 season to kick off the LPGA season here rather than far away.

The tour returns to the Northeast region this week at the ShopRite LPGA Classic at Stockton Seaview Hotel and Golf Club in Galloway Township. N.J. The first round is Friday.

The LPGA possesses a strong global outreach and bunches most overseas tournaments into separate trips in the late winter and the fall. Whan said the tour goes away in the fall because college and pro football captures the sponsors and the ratings in the United States.

With the schedule basically in place, the commissioner's next emphasis is on the growth of purses. Tournaments this year offer an average of around $1.75 million in prize money, boosted by an average of nearly $2.8 million for the LPGA's five major championships.

Though he didn't mention numbers, Whan said he is "more than comfortable" that fans will see more prize money in 2015.

"Everybody wants to make sure they've got the strongest field and the most TV exposure, and I think you'll see a pretty significant leap" in purses, he said. "I've never told a sponsor what their purse should be. I tell a sponsor what the highest and the lowest is and they make that decision because purses are where you want them to be in relation to the rest of the field."

The early performances of young American players have been a positive. Stacy Lewis, Lexi Thompson, Paula Creamer and Lizette Salas are ranked in the top 10 in the world and have won tournaments this year. Michelle Wie, with a No. 12 ranking and a tournament win to her credit, has returned to the spotlight.

So life in the LPGA is on the upswing. Even so, Whan won't relax.

"I'm not a fan of the status quo no matter how good or how bad it is," he said, "so I would hate to say we're done doing anything. But I think no matter what measure you would use to evaluate the state of the LPGA, it would be hard not to recognize the elevation we've experienced. But we've got a long way to go."

(c)2014 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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