Need I tell you that Tigermania is sweeping the country? Final-round coverage of last month's Buick Invitational, with Woods going for his seventh straight win, got a higher rating than any U.S. or British Open in 15 years. To avoid the huge crowds that dog his every step these days, Woods plays practice rounds at 6 a.m. Tournament directors have been swamped with requests for media credentials. The progress of Tiger's recent winning streak was noted on the nightly network news. Even when he lost, Woods's picture made the front page of The New York Times.
The question is, What kind of impact are his heroics having on the other U.S. tours? You'll hear no complaints from the seniors, whose own merry band has been bolstered by the arrival of Tom Kite, Lanny Wadkins and Tom Watson, or from the newly renamed Buy.com tour. Both tours are camped under one large umbrella with the PGA Tour (same headquarters, same commissioner), with obvious benefits. For instance, telecasts of Senior tour events don't go head-to-head with regular Tour events. Also, the Senior and the Buy.com tours benefit from trickle-down economics.
Where does this leave the women? Many believe that a rising tide lifts all boats, but sad to say, the LPGA's boat is up on the beach. Four weeks ago the women played in Los Angeles to a gallery of mostly friends and relatives. With Tiger teeing it up about 100 miles south in La Jolla and CBS's weekend telecasts going on at noon Pacific time, who wanted to be at Wood Ranch Golf Club in Simi Valley? Yes, the LPGA event was televised, but on the Golf Channel, which only junkies get. As one former network executive said, "Who in the hell would want to be televising an LPGA event when you're going up against Tiger Woods?"
Although the women's purses have risen steadily, they have not grown like the men's. Since 1996, the year Woods turned pro, the PGA Tour's total prize money has gone from $69 million to $157 million. By contrast, the LPGA's purses over those years have increased only from $22.5 million to $34.2 million. That's roughly $20 million less than this year's Senior tour prize money.
The reasons for this shortfall go beyond Tiger. The greatest is the absence of an exciting personality who happens to play better golf than anybody else. Oh, what the LPGA would give to have another 21-year-old Nancy Lopez step up to the 1st tee. Or maybe Venus and Serena Williams with golf clubs instead of tennis rackets. Last year's player of the year, Australia's Karrie Webb, has already won three times this year, including last week's Australian Ladies Masters, but unlike so many Aussies, effervescence is not part of her equipment. Se Ri Pak has difficulty speaking English. Annika Sorenstam is a Swede, as was Greta Garbo, and the two share some of the same stolid characteristics. Sorenstam was scheduled to make her 2000 debut in Los Angeles, and the tournament promoted her heavily, but at the last minute it was discovered that she had not officially entered, and she was declared ineligible. The LPGA can ill afford such clerical errors.
The tournament schedule is another liability. It's a hodge-podge, lacking the consistency of the PGA Tour's three-month opening, with its nine-tournament West Coast swing followed by four Florida events and then the Masters. Who knows where, when or even if the women are playing from week to week? This year's tour began in West Palm Beach, Fla. Last year's began in Orlando. In 1997 it started in Fort Lauderdale, in 1994 in Lake Worth, Fla. You get the idea.
After this year's first two events the LPGA lost whatever momentum it had by taking a two-week siesta. Then after its cross-country trip to the Los Angeles Women's Championship, it headed to the other side of the world, Australia (with stop-offs in Hawaii on either side), virtually guaranteeing zero coverage. Even its first marquee event gets lost. The Nabisco Championship (n�e Dinah Shore) is played opposite the Players Championship because that's the weekend ABC can televise it. What is ABC doing the week before the Masters? It's televising a Senior tour event, the Tradition.
In a joint interview with SPORTS ILLUSTRATED a year ago, LPGA commissioner Ty Votaw and his counterpart at the PGA Tour, Tim Finchem, were asked how they would feel about joining forces under one even larger umbrella. Finchem was intrigued with the idea. Now might be a good time for Votaw to pursue it.