The LPGA doesn't like to compare itself with the PGA Tour, yet at the Sprint Championship last week it was hard not to notice the vast differences between the men's and the women's professional golf circuits. This was the sixth year of the Sprint, which was conceived by the LPGA as its fifth major, the equivalent of the PGA Tour's Players Championship. This year's Sprint was played for the first time at the LPGA's new home course, LPGA International in Daytona Beach, and the event's $1.2 million in prize money matched the McDonald's LPGA Championship purse as the tour's richest of the year. There was even national TV coverage, four hours on the weekend by CBS. With that much going for it, you would think the Sprint was a must-play. Yet something very big in the picture was missing.
Namely, Laura Davies, the tour's biggest hitter and biggest draw, not to mention its top player. She skipped the Sprint to play in a tournament in Japan. That's right, the LPGA's leading money winner was at the Satake Japan Classic in Higashi Hiroshima (she tied for fifth). If you're looking for the PGA Tour equivalent, that would be like Nick Price skipping the Players to do an outing overseas.
What does this say about the LPGA tour? Everything. The tour's muted reaction spoke volumes about the LPGA's status among its players. While outgoing LPGA commissioner Charles Mechem was certainly disappointed at Davies's absence, he did not try to pressure Davies into skipping the trip to Japan.
Davies, who's No. 1 in driving distance (269.6 yards), birdies (99), rounds in the 60s (seven) and stroke average (71.04), has won twice, had five top-10 finishes in seven events and made $282,040 on the LPGA tour this year. Two weeks ago she won the Chick-fil-A Charity Championship in Stockbridge, Ga., beating Kelly Robbins by four strokes. This week and next she'll defend titles at the Sara Lee Classic and the LPGA Championship, respectively, two of the eight tournaments she won on five continents in 1994.
No wonder the players almost blessed the English star's decision to play in Japan last week. "If she chose to do that, more power to her," said Colleen Walker after shooting 66 to tie Kris Tschetter and Dottie Mochrie for the Sprint first-round lead.
"Anytime you remove from the field that type of talent, it's good for the rest of us," said Robbins, who ranks second to Davies in driving distance.
It was certainly good for Val Skinner, who shot 67 on Sunday for a 15-under 273 to win the Sprint by two strokes over Tschetter. It was the sixth career victory for Skinner, and the $180,000 first-place check vaulted her 15 places up the money list to second, behind Davies, with $254,117. It also signaled that the 34-year-old Skinner's comeback is complete.
With victories in 1985, '86 and '87 Skinner had established herself as one of the 20 best women players in the world. But personal problems, which she firmly but nicely refuses to discuss, blurred her focus, and she gradually burned out on golf.
"I'm a perfectionist, and golf's an imperfect game," said Skinner. "It's incredibly demanding, and I'm incredibly demanding on myself."
In 1992 she finished 100th on the money list and was contemplating retirement. That's when sports psychologist Bob Rotella, with whom she had worked in the mid-'80s, called and invited Skinner to Thanksgiving dinner. She hadn't talked to Rotella in four years. "He asked me one thing," Skinner said. "He said, 'Is golf going to be a priority for you: yes or no?' From that point on, my mind was back into it."