LPGA tees it up in great game of looking good

Golf: The women's pro tour has outlined a five-year growth plan, and guess what's part of its sales pitch?


April 30, 2002|By Thomas Bonk | Thomas Bonk,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It was in 1981 and Jan Stephenson still remembers the pose. She was lying on a bed and her nightgown was slit up one side. It must have been a bit drafty, but Stephenson wore a big smile, if little else.

That was the picture that did it, the one that frosted some of her fellow players, such as Kathy Whitworth and Jane Blalock, even though the photo was for the LPGA's magazine and sanctioned by its commissioner.

"Jane said to me, `Why are you lowering yourself to sell sex?' " said Stephenson, who laughed as she recounted the incident. "Jane asked me recently if I'd consider doing something like that to help her promote the Women's Senior Golf Tour."

There is a moral to the story, said Stephenson: "Every single thing is sold with sex, whether you like it or not."

So it goes on the LPGA Tour, where everything old is new again. As the women's professional golf organization embarks on an ambitious five-year plan to secure a more favored position in the sports entertainment arena, the main item on the LPGA's agenda is to make the product more fan-friendly.

And that, you might recall, is where Stephenson came in - as did Marlene Bauer Hagge and her sister, Alice Bauer, three decades earlier when the LPGA was just beginning. They had part of the equation down pat. They looked terrific - and they could play golf, too.

Stephenson said she cannot forget what then-LPGA commissioner Ray Volpe told her about appearing in Fairway magazine in that revealing nightgown.

"He said your golf doesn't speak for itself," she said. "If you want to see the best golfers in the world, you would watch the men. If you want to see the best women golfers, then look like women."

Ty Votaw, current LPGA commissioner, would agree with at least part of what Volpe said.

As Votaw pointed out, most players historically have believed that all that was really required of them - and all that should be required of them - is to play golf to the best of their abilities and everything else would fall neatly into place for the benefit of the LPGA.

"Our fans are telling us that that's not the case, that they have to do more than just play great golf," Votaw said.

As a part of the first long-range strategic planning session in its 52-year-history, the LPGA identified several short-term goals to promote the sport. The LPGA wants to increase television viewership 10 percent each year of the five-year plan and wants to boost tournament attendance by 15 percent each year.

Of the 31 events on this year's schedule, 25 offer at least $1 million in prize money, 13 more tournaments than two years ago. Votaw's goal for 2003 is that every tournament has a purse of at least $1 million.

What Votaw came up with is something called the "Five Points of Celebrity," which he revealed to LPGA members in a players-only summit nearly a month ago in Phoenix.

Performance is the first point and is the key, said Votaw, but it cannot be the only factor and must be considered along with the other four: approachability, joy and passion, relevance and appearance.

Appearance? In Votaw's eyes, it's not just ironing golf shirts and shining your shoes; it's Grace Park revealing her navel when she swings and Carin Koch's short-shorts and Jill McGill's legs. And is that bad? Not anymore, apparently.

"I don't see anything wrong with it," said Juli Inkster, 41 and a mother of two girls. "When I go out, I watch the best-looking guy players. It's like, if you've got it, you've got it.

"If you've got the body to do it, go for it. I wish I did. Remember this: We're still in the entertainment business."

Or, as Votaw said, "Right or wrong, society has decided that it's important to be attractive, [and] if we're just about being pro golfers, then our players will not reach their potential."

Annika Sorenstam is a great player but not particularly outgoing. She said she would do her best to try to improve, but that she will not and cannot be anyone but herself. Votaw said he does not ask that of any player, least of all Sorenstam, his top card.

Said Votaw: "I'm not asking for contrived fist pumps." He said he told the players at the summit that they all embody the five points, though some are stronger in some areas than others. Those five points are "critical for our young players in order to become more marketable," he said.

The players seem to be very much on board the ship Votaw is sailing, and he has their full attention. They sign more autographs; they do more print and television interviews.

Michelle McGann was nearly in the locker room after shooting an 84 during the Kraft Nabisco Championship before a Palm Springs TV reporter asked her to return to the scoring area for an interview. She complied, with a smile.

ESPN is the major television carrier of the LPGA Tour, and the network's director of programming, Kelly LaFerriere, isn't sure simply emphasizing sex appeal is the way to go.

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