Mention the LPGA to your Average cable sports fan, and his or her response might be, Is Nancy Lopez pregnant again? or, Did Jan Stephenson pose for a new calendar? Some might recall something about a Big Momma or even a New Big Momma, but almost everyone else is an unknown under a visor.
Embarking on its 40th year, the Ladies Professional Golf Association is still struggling to sell a product that begins with the modest crack of a 215-yard drive and generally ends with a brief cheer on the 72nd hole. To paraphrase Willy Loman, who also was familiar with a tough sell, the LPGA has been liked but not well-liked.
The LPGA tour has always played second fiddle to the PGA Tour, but now—and with the current resurgence in golf—the LPGA has sunk to third, behind the upstart Senior PGA Tour. Only dedicated golf fans can name the women's four majors (the Nabisco Dinah Shore, the U.S. Open, the Mazda LPGA Championship and the du Maurier Classic), let alone the winners of them. After Nancy Lopez, the two words most commonly associated with the LPGA have become, Who cares?
One man who must care is the LPGA's new commissioner, William Blue. In November, Blue, 48, was selected to succeed John Laupheimer, who announced his resignation last summer. Laupheimer, 59, had spent nearly seven years guiding the women to steady if unspectacular growth, but he had been criticized publicly by players who complained about gaps in the schedule, insufficient prize money and Mickey Mouse courses. Upon accepting the $250,000-a-year post, which Golf Digest recently termed one of the worst jobs in golf, Blue optimistically declared, "I can't think of a better job."
There's no denying that Blue's appointment has infused the LPGA with a much-needed shot of adrenaline. Before joining up, Blue was director of international marketing for the Kahlua Group, the coffee-liqueur maker.
"A sparkle in the eye, that's what I see in Mr. Blue," says 14-year pro Amy Alcott. Indeed, Blue seems incapable of negativity. "I don't see problems, only opportunities," he says. "My job is to remove all the negatives."
It will be a big job. Chip Campbell, a sports marketing executive with Ohlmeyer Communications in New York who was considered for the commissioner's position, succinctly summed up the plight of the LPGA when he said, "Mr. Blue had better be dynamic, because right now his sport isn't."
Indeed, 1988 was not a banner year for the LPGA. Mazda announced it would withdraw its sponsorship of a $300,000 season-long bonus pool and of the $200,000 Mazda Classic, and reduced its overall advertising commitment. In July the Lady Westchester Open was canceled after promoters could not raise the $300,000 purse or line up a course. That same month the Greater Washington Open also came up short. Rather than lose another event, the LPGA agreed to a smaller purse.
This year's schedule calls for 35 tournaments, down from 36 in 1988 and a high of 40 in '81. "We've been feeling as if we were going to hell in a hand basket," says tour veteran Muffin Spencer-Devlin. "But it's led to a good change, because now we know we have to go in a different direction."
To turn the LPGA around, Blue will have to address three major problems: