Wide-Open Race for No. 1
Who's going to be the No. 1 player in golf at the end of 2010? For the first time, there is no sure answer to that question in men's and women's golf. Tiger Woods is about to be replaced by Lee Westwood in the men's rankings, although several other players, including Martin Kaymer, could surge past them both by the end of the year.
On the LPGA tour, the top spot has turned into a game of musical chairs ever since Lorena Ochoa's retirement. Cristie Kerr, Jiyai Shin and Japan's Ai Miyazato have all been No. 1 at some point this year. Before that, Ochoa and Annika Sorenstam had Tiger-esque strangleholds on the position.
The best thing about the women's battle for No. 1 is that the title is truly coveted. The top players, like Kerr, embrace the spot for the honor that comes with it and openly admit they want it. In men's golf, the chase for No. 1 is mostly met with an if-it-happens-it-happens attitude, a recipe for buzzkill.
With this week's CVS Pharmacy LPGA Challenge in Northern California, the chase for No. 1 resumes. Kerr could have reclaimed the top spot last week but blew a lead and stumbled on Sunday at the Navistar Classic, finishing third when a victory would have bumped her to No. 1. Instead, she inched past Shin into second behind Miyazato. Kerr is the only top-five player teeing it up this week, so she has another shot. She told the Associated Press that she's excited about the pursuit of No. 1.
"It's been crazy and it's been fun," Kerr said Wednesday. "It's been kind of like a roller-coaster ride. It's a good time for us."
Miyazato, who has held the No. 1 ranking for eight straight weeks, is skipping this week's Northern California stop on the tour. That means Kerr can regain the No. 1 ranking for third time this year with a win. Even a top-five finish will likely push her past Miyazato. That would give Kerr — owner of 14 LPGA career titles — a shot at becoming the first American to end the season No. 1 since the rankings began in 2006. Beth Daniel (1994) is the last American to earn player of the year honors on the tour.
"The more we can get the word out that the LPGA is exciting and it's something to watch and there is an American, me, now up there in the mix to be No. 1 in the world, I think we'll get a lot more fans, a lot more people interested," said Kerr, who celebrated her 33rd birthday Tuesday.
"It's been a long time since Americans had the ability to end the year No. 1, so I think that you've just got to go for it. We need to grow our fan base in the United States again, so that we can grow and have more tournaments and more sponsors here. When I first came on tour we had over 40 tournaments. Now we have 26. It's quite a change in 10 years."
LPGA Struggles for Attention
The LPGA's battle at the top hasn't gotten big media play, and Golf Channel.com's Tom Abbott wonders why the LPGA hasn't drawn more attention.
This would seem like a sponsor and media dream. So why the lack of tournaments and why the lack of coverage in the mainstream golf media?
The stop-start schedule plays a big-role. This season, the tour began in the Far East, then halted for a few weeks before re-starting in March with a couple of great tournaments in California. The tour disappeared in April, stopping briefly for an event in Jamaica buried on CBS and Lorena’s swansong in Mexico, which wasn’t even televised in the U.S., before reappearing for two events in May, one in Mobile, Ala., the other in New Jersey... but bottom line, the tour must play when and where sponsors want them to and sometimes that simply doesn’t fit into making the tour flow. This doesn’t look likely to change next season.
A second factor surely has to do with Tiger Woods. For most of 2010, the golf media was all Tiger all the time and other stories simply got forgotten. At the Kraft Nabisco Championship, the first major of the season, a large number of golf writers departed on the eve of the final round; they had to be at Augusta National Golf Club in time for Tiger’s big comeback press conference. After a really close finish, where Pettersen barely missed a chip-in for a playoff with Tseng, an earthquake ensued, literally, during the champion’s press conference, but it barely registered on the media Richter scale.
Playing second fiddle is nothing new for the Nabisco, which used to be played opposite the PGA Tour's Players Championship until the Players moved to a new date in May. And Woods has dwarfed all things in golf that he's not a part of--the women's tour, the senior tour and even the PGA Tour events he doesn't play.
There's also the issue of foreign players, he said, with whom U.S. fans struggle to identify. A bigger issue: because of the foreign influence, more events are being played in other countries. Barely half of the LPGA schedule is in the U.S., and American media doesn't cover those events. Even if the event is televised to the States, it doesn't have an American flavor.
I’m obviously a little biased in this view, but Golf Channel is a good partner for the tour. It’s a permanent home for the broadcasts with resources worldwide and a team of people who really enjoy the tour and care for the product. The problem is, not all the events are branded by Golf Channel. When the tour goes to Asia, Golf Channel simply airs a world feed without familiar commentators or the look of what you might expect from one of our broadcasts. A consistent look throughout the season breeds familiarity with the viewers. Sponsors are sometimes more concerned by hospitality rather than visibility. That’s great, but not for the long-term health of the overall product and certainly not for people like you and me who enjoy watching quality golf broadcasts on television.
Golf Channel is an obvious home for the LPGA. The problem is, it's also home for telecasts of the European tour, Nationwide tour, Champions tour and PGA Tour. That's too many tours and not enough hours in the day to televise them all when they all conclude at about the same time on the same weekend days.
It's surprising that one of the smaller tours hasn't experimented with Saturday finishes or something really radical like a Saturday-to-Tuesday schedule. A Monday or Tuesday final round could be the focus of attention at Golf Channel, which has no live golf to televise the first three days each week. Of course, that would also be an admission of what we already know--they aren't golf tournaments anymore, they're television shows.