The high-pitched roar of race car engines, a slam dunk contest, a confab on the latest innovations in sand and gravel, and the long shadow cast by a certain round-eared icon. That's what the LPGA was up against as it opened the season last week in Orlando.
O.K., because the LPGA's two best players, Annika Sorenstam and Karrie Webb, decided to remain in hibernation, maybe the Health-South Inaugural at the Grand Cypress Resort didn't pack the marquee punch of the previous week's golfapalooza, the PGA Tour's Mercedes Championships, in which Tiger Woods shot a 58 or something to just miss catching Phil Mickelson. That doesn't change the fact that the men didn't have nearly the competition in San Diego that the LPGA had in Orlando.
Only the hearing-impaired wouldn't have heard the fine whine coming from the NASCAR race taking place a few miles from the course at the Walt Disney World Speedway. The papers were full of stories about the ABI-All-Star weekend, which included the first jam session by women. Then there were the hard feelings created when hundreds of attendees at a cement convention mixed with pilgrims to Mickey Mouse's Magic Kingdom to book solid every hotel in town.
The thing is, the LPGA always seems to be fighting something for the public's attention, and sometimes one is left with the impression that nothing the players do on the course makes much of a difference. Last week the LPGA offered concrete proof that—damn the distractions and other attractions—it can put on a terrific show even without its two brightest stars. Long-hitting Kelly Robbins, after opening with a 76, birdied 15 of the final 36 holes and rode a 67-66 finish to a two-shot victory over Meg Mallon, who aced the 12th hole in the final round. Robbins, an All-America at Tulsa, appears to be ready to challenge for the top spot after finishing third on the money list last year behind Sorenstam and Webb. "They can take as much time off as they want," said Robbins on Sunday evening before heading for West Palm Beach, where she will attempt to defend her title in the Office Depot tournament that was set to begin on Wednesday.
Robbins is the latest bit of good news for a tour that has shown steady if not spectacular growth over the past decade. The LPGA, in fact, would be considered one of the better success stories in sports—if the PGA Tour wasn't overshadowing the women with $4 million tournaments and $400 million TV deals. While the PGA Tour goes for the big score, the LPGA plugs away in Dean Witter fashion: one investor at a time. "If you talk about stability and how it has grown, the LPGA is a very successful operation," says Judy Rankin, a former player who's now a commentator on ABC and ESPN golf telecasts, "but the PGA Tour and the Senior tour have had such tremendous success that women's golf pales in comparison."
The LPGA's numbers look good: 42 tournaments in 1998 (up from 35 in '93); $32 million in prize money (up from $14 million in 1989 and $4.4 million in '79); seven events with purses of $1 million or more, including all four majors for the first time; and 32 events on TV, a new high. "Fifteen years ago the biggest purses were $75,000 or $100,000," says 18-year veteran Jane Crafter. "The growth has been there, but it hasn't been by leaps and bounds like on the men's tours." Robbins's share of the $600,000 purse at the HealthSouth was $90,000.
Still, the LPGA is headed in the right direction, and this year there are some new reasons for optimism. Mercury recently signed on as an umbrella sponsor for seven tournaments. Those will be shown on either ESPN or ESPN2 and carry a bonus pool of $250,000. LPGA members over 40 are also playing for an extra $500,000 in the yearlong Lilly Legends competition. The HealthSouth was the concluding event in the first Legends series, which began last July. Betsy King won the $125,000 first prize.
Things look promising on the course, too. Everyone knows how Tiger Woods has raised the level of competition on the PGA Tour with his impressive play, yet the same sort of thing has happened on the LPGA tour. Webb made a statement by becoming the first woman to break the $1 million barrier, in 1996, then Sorenstam won six times and more than $1.2 million in '97. Add Robbins to the equation and it's easy to see why the LPGA has made an impact on Generation Next. "The way they're playing is inspiring," says Mallon, the '91 U.S. Open champ. "Younger women see golf as an opportunity. All of a sudden female athletes are starting to play golf instead of basketball. You're not seeing country-club golfers here anymore."
Robbins, a native of Mount Pleasant, Mich., was a standout basketball player in high school. She used her length to good advantage last year, leading the LPGA in greens in regulation. She won a pair of tournaments, lost two more in playoffs and established herself as the most talented American on the tour.
Another impressive athlete is rookie Si Re Pak, 20, from South Korea. She has already been allied the Tiger Woods of women's golf and has the same lean, muscular build as Woods as well as a classic swing. Playing in her first event as a member of the LPGA—she tied for first with Cristie Kerr in last fall's Q school—Pak wound up 13th, eight shots behind Robbins. "She'll win four or five tournaments this year," says Laura Davies, who before leaving England for Orlando placed a �100 bet on Pak, at 66-1 odds, to win the HealthSouth.