Will this be the season the Ladies Professional Golf Association sheds its Rodney Dangerfield image and starts getting some respect?
Could be. The appointment in November of Charles Mechem Jr. as the new commissioner of the LPGA was a promising sign. On paper, Mechem, a Yale-educated lawyer with 24 years of experience in the television business, appears to be exactly what the LPGA needs—someone who can persuade corporate sponsors and network executives to give women's golf a bigger slice of the action that is now dominated by the PGA and Senior PGA tours.
Golf is booming among both sexes. A recent National Golf Foundation survey found that 40% of all new golfers are women, but the LPGA hasn't cashed in on the explosion. The $17.7 million in prize money for the LPGA's 37 events this year falls short of the $19 million the Seniors will play for in their 42 tournaments, and looks puny in comparison with the minimum of $45 million budgeted for the PGA Tour's 52 events. Furthermore, in '91 there will be a costly three-week, midseason gap in the LPGA's schedule, just as there was last season. As for television coverage, the networks will broadcast 39 regular Tour and nine Senior events, but only five LPGA tournaments.
Mechem is well known in television circles. In 1967, after a successful career with a Cincinnati law firm, he moved on to the Great American Broadcasting Co., then known as the Taft Broadcasting Co., from which he retired as chairman last June. And he's no stranger to the LPGA. Great American owns the Jack Nicklaus Sports Center, a recreation facility that includes two 18-hole courses designed by Nicklaus, and was the host sponsor for the LPGA Championship from 1978 through 1989. An 18-handicapper, Mechem played in the tournament's pro-am several times.
"He's not only a highly successful businessman, whose background is perfectly suited to the needs of the LPGA, he is also a first-class, well-respected, quality individual," said LPGA president Judy Dickinson when she announced Mechem's appointment in November.
By putting its house in order before the start of the new season, the LPGA did itself a big favor. When it fired William Blue in September, after 21 stormy months on the job, the association seemed in disarray. Blue, a marketing executive for a liqueur company when he won the job in November 1988, created as many headaches for the LPGA as he relieved. Although Blue refused to comment on his firing, Dickinson and several other players said the fit simply wasn't right. Other insiders said that several embarrassing incidents caused by Blue's brash, heavy-handed manner had rankled both players and sponsors. His biggest blunder occurred in the fall of 1989 when he scheduled a nationally televised Skins Game on the same weekend as the 13-year-old Corning Classic, which is held in an upstate New York community popular with the players. In the same week that Blue got his pink slip, J.C. Penney pulled its sponsorship of the '91 Skins Game because organizers couldn't come up with an alternate date. The six-player LPGA executive committee had stated that the association wouldn't sanction the Skins Game if it conflicted with the Corning tournament again this year.
Blue also blundered last August, in the aftermath of the Shoal Creek controversy at the PGA Championship, when he claimed that the LPGA wasn't vulnerable on the issue of holding tournaments at clubs that discriminate against women and minorities. Only days later, however, NAACP officials threatened a protest of the Wykagyl Country Club, site of an LPGA event, because the New Rochelle, N.Y., club had never had a black member. It also turned out that at least two other clubs that hosted LPGA tournaments in 1990 had made no effort to attract minority members. The NAACP called off the protest after Wykagyl said it was actively recruiting black members.
Another sore subject was Blue's failure to spend enough time at the LPGA headquarters in Daytona Beach, Fla. Even worse, according to Betsy Rawls, LPGA Hall of Famer and president of the sponsors association, "Blue had no background in golf and didn't know how to operate in the world of golf."
In that regard, Mechem is on firmer footing. Nicklaus has described him as "loyal, hardworking and a good friend to all of us in golf." Rawls also endorses Mechem, calling his appointment "the beginning of a new era for the LPGA."
The LPGA commissioner's post has been called one of the worst jobs in golf. But Mechem is upbeat about the "excitement and challenges" of the job. The folks at the LPGA wouldn't mind having more of the former and fewer of the latter in years to come. With Mechem's help, perhaps they will.