Monday, May 19, 2008

The 19th Hole: The LPGA Triumverate

Lorena Ochoa won the Sybase Classic in New Jersey for the third consecutive year on Sunday. It is her sixth win of the season. Before that, Annika Sorenstam had won two of her last three starts including a seven shot thrashing at the Michelob Ultra Open at Kingsmill. In between the Sorenstam victories, Paula Creamer won her second event of the season – with Lorena Ochoa in the field – at the SemGroup Championship in Oklahoma. Before all of that, Ochoa reeled off four consecutive victories.

On the season, only one person other than these three players has won an event on the LPGA Tour. That person is Louise Friberg and she won in Mexico at the Mastercard Classic. Other than that, no LPGA player has won. A limited few have sniffed victory. Juli Inkster lost in a playoff in Oklahoma for the second consecutive year, but this time went down to Creamer instead of Mi Hyun Kim.

The domination of three players over this tour is staggering. It is something that is reminiscent of the Big Three of Nicklaus, Palmer, and Player in their run of trading major championships – particularly the Masters – over a nine year period. The fact that it is happening in a single season is equally as impressive as that feat. Venues change from week to week, so do the players, as do the playing conditions. Despite all of that, Ochoa, Sorenstam, and Creamer still seem to find a way to win between the three of them.

Even when the three of them are not winning, they are still playing excellent golf. Creamer is the lagger of the three. In her nine starts this season, she has two wins and two other top 3s. The rest of the finishes are outside of the top 10. Again, that makes her the worst performing player of the three. That would be a career season for 90% of golfers on any professional tour.

Sorenstam has just two finishes out of the top 10 and three out of the top five, including a T11 this weekend in New Jersey. Ochoa has finished outside of the top 10 only once this season - at Kingsmill. She is winning at a 67% rate, a stunning and unheard of rate, even if down from the 80% winning percentage she had earlier in the season.

The interesting part about the dominance of these three players is that it can be spun into a negative thing.

Barker Davis of the Washington Times wrote a piece on April 25 in which he claimed, “[T]he fact that two players have dominated the LPGA to such a degree almost concurrently says nearly as much about the lack of depth in the women's game as it does about their individual greatness.”

On the Golf Channel’s Golf Central program last night, the topic of conversation switched to the same subject matter. Brandel Chamblee disagreed with Davis’ premise that this is a potentially bad thing. He claimed that sponsors love superstars, not parity. (That is not universally true. See the NFL for details.) In golf, that is true. The PGA Tour really only has two or three superstars and sponsors fawn over them.

The LPGA Tour may be able to experience the same kind of rub from the Big Three. That makes this year particularly critical for Commissioner Carolyn Bivens on multiple fronts. The Tour needs to close the deal on a television contract that is as beneficial as possible in 2008. Also, the Tour needs to sure up events that may be losing sponsorship or ending altogether – particularly the Ginn events and the event at Superstition Mountain.

With Annika’s announcement of stepping away from the game at the end of the season, the LPGA Tour will be hard pressed to be in a better position to negotiate with all parties come 2009. Yes, Ochoa leads a pack of next generation players and she seems poised to become one of the all-time greats. But, the position of strength for the Tour today is that there are two all-timers in the midst of an amazing season with another potential great joining in on the fun.

The fact that more writers appear to be covering the LPGA Tour in Tiger’s absence is telling. Quite possibly, the LPGA Tour has never enjoyed a window this large through which the game can grow. It must take advantage of this situation.


The Constructivist said...

Nice piece. I wonder if The Golf Channel's extended coverage of Ochoa's win is a signal they're interested in competing with ESPN for the LPGA tv contract....

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