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A dazzling LPGA season was winding down last week, and every other night there was a gilded blowout at Mar-a-Lago, Donald Trump's Palm Beach, Fla., estate, to mark the occasion. There was the host, detailing a recent round of 71. Beside him was his wife, Melania, described as a new mother, but, please. There was Annika, her muscular shoulders gleaming with product, hanging with her boyfriend--business manager Mike McGee, son of Jerry, if you remember that touring name from yesteryear. There was Sophie Gustafson, the long-whacking Swede, sans husband, Ty Votaw, the former LPGA commissioner who now plays for the other team (as PGA Tour executive VP international affairs). And there was Votaw's successor, the diminutive Carolyn Bivens, bejeweled and made up, tended to by her husband, Bill Bivens, a retired auto executive with a bruising handshake and big-shouldered suits. The little mushroom profiteroles? So good.
You know these names. Annika, of course, but also Michelle (not in this one), Lorena, Karrie, Cristie, Morgan, Paula, Natalie, plus Se Ri and a handful of Kims. The greatest, most international collection of talent, hope and looks in the 56-year history of the Ladies Professional Golf Association, right? In case you didn't catch commissioner Bivens's state-of-the-tour address last week, here's a recap: record purses, record TV viewership, record Internet traffic, record this, record that, not to mention the groundbreaking (for golf) step of creating a drug-testing policy. Her kicker: "We have the most talented, marketable and trend-setting group of athletes that a sport could ask for. We're providing value for the rest of the world, and we're beginning to benefit from a product that's turning into a great return on investment. And the best is yet to come." Par-tay!
To that report, we are duty-bound to offer this postscript: record infighting in 2006, just off-the-charts levels for the LPGA, which is saying something.
The conditions were ideal. Install an agent-of-change commissioner, the first woman ever to have the job, an outsider to golf's manly culture. Have this new commissioner inspect the books and conclude that the LPGA is, in actual fact, a dolled-up mom-and-pop operation with limited assets working on a shoestring budget, a multinational corporation (in name) that has a meager pension plan and offers no health benefits to its members.
Then watch closely as this brand-new commissioner, who had never before held a job that put her in the public eye, makes several rookie mistakes that she won't admit to. These missteps annoy many of the tournament "owners" (as the sponsors have taken to calling themselves), some of the old-guard players (including Sorenstam) and three influential members of the golfing press, LPGA division: Jay Coffin of Golfweek; Dottie Pepper, the TV commentator and SI Golf Plus contributor; and Ron Sirak of Golf World.
Naturally, a number of beloved LPGA staffers left or were fired in the new boss's first year. Several tournaments died, and several more likely will. Bivens's moves would have made Jack Welch and other social Darwinists proud, but they provided excellent fodder for the commentators, who had a field day with the new commish.
On one occasion Pepper didn't like the way the commissioner dressed. Pepper, who won 17 times in her playing career and believes the LPGA might be better off as an arm of the PGA Tour, saw Bivens apparently wearing shorts at a tour event, a look Pepper feels is unbecoming for a commissioner, a look she had never seen on Votaw or Tim Finchem or any other commissioner. She called Bivens on it in a May 8 Golf Plus column while Jay Coffin also mentioned it in Golfweek. Bivens quickly responded to Pepper by e-mail: "I saw Jay Coffin's note about me wearing shorts. It wasn't worth the effort to tell him I had on silk, knee-length culottes. Must say I was surprised when I saw the same thing in your column.... In an industry which continues to place women under a microscope and perpetuates old stereotypes I was surprised."
Pepper fired back with an e-mail of her own: "I observed you in person that afternoon, [and] in no way were your shorts knee-length. You are the chosen 'CEO' for the LPGA and regardless of length or style, they were simply not appropriate attire for any person in your position."
Later in the e-mail, Pepper unleashed this broadside: "As a member of the LPGA for nearly 20 years, I am most disappointed with the lack of sincerity and [the] strong-arm tactics being used at this time on every imaginable level. Solid, long-term relationships are what the LPGA has been all about for more than 50 years and the main key to its success. I certainly hope these relationships are not the casualty of your new business plan."
But there were casualties of Bivens's new business plan--a plan best summed as: Make More Money!--and the ShopRite LPGA Classic, an event Pepper won a decade ago, was one of them. The tournament, played on a charming, antiquated, buggy Donald Ross course near Atlantic City, raised more than $12 million for charity over its 21-year history, twice the lifespan of most LPGA events. A new suitor with deep pockets, the Ginn Clubs & Resorts, coveted the ShopRite's early-June date. Larry and Ruth Harrison, the wealthy, retired husband-and-wife team that ran the tournament, felt that Bivens never negotiated in good faith with them. A half year into her tenure as commissioner, the Harrisons said they hadn't even had a direct conversation with Bivens, until she showed up at this year's classic.