Kerr trying to put best face on LPGA

Even as she becomes top draw, tour struggles to stay relevant in U.S.

February 09, 2011|By Bill Dwyre, Tribune Newspapers

LOS ANGELES — In the world of professional golf, the LPGA Tour is the runt of the litter. Even more so now.

Annika Sorenstam is gone. She won so much for so long and did so in such a cool, collected way that whatever limited fan base the tour had, she made it larger.

Lorena Ochoa is gone. She won so much in such a short time, and did so in such a cool, collected way that whatever fan base Sorenstam had grown, Ochoa grew it more.

Clearly, the LPGA needs a new leading lady. And if you don't think that's complicated, think again.

One candidate was in Los Angeles last week to promote the city's first LPGA event in six years.

Cristie Kerr said all the right things and charmed all the right people in her appearance for the March 24-27 Kia Classic at the Pacific Palms Resort in the City of Industry. She posed for pictures with the men in the suits next to the cars they market by sponsoring the $1.7 million event. She signed any autograph sought, shook any hand offered and left the impression that she could well be the next face of the tour.

But it's complicated. One-on-one, after the public show, she addressed that as best she dared.

She is No. 2 in the women's world rankings. She was No. 1 three times last season, a year in which she won twice and ran away with the LPGA Championship by 12 shots. Nobody had won a major in such spectacular fashion since Babe Didrikson Zaharias. No American had been No. 1 in the rankings before.

Still, as happy as Kerr was with that, she was sitting in a hotel ballroom and was still weeks away from the first tour event of 2011.

"I won $1.6 million last year," she said, "and that was in 20 percent fewer tournaments than my next best year."

It wasn't because she skipped events. It was because there were fewer to play.

The LPGA Tour opens Feb. 17 in Thailand. Its first appearance in the United States will be the Kia event. This year's tour consists of 25 official events.

"It used to be more like 35, 38," Kerr said.

The issue is more than a lack of quantity. It is location, location, location, and Kerr readily acknowledged that. Of those 25 events, 12 are in the United States. The LPGA Tour goes from July 11 to Aug. 19, prime summer golfing time, without a tournament in the U.S. It then goes from Sept. 19 to Nov. 17 before again setting foot on U.S. soil.

The LPGA markets this as a global tour. Kerr, a tough-minded, 15-year tour veteran, sees it for what it is.

"We have to go where the money is," she said, adding quickly, "but we are a U.S.-based tour, so we need to focus more on getting U.S. tournaments."

Again, this is complicated, because even Kerr's expression of the obvious can be seen as American chauvinism.

The argument for a positive connotation of the global tour is that the world's current No. 1 player, South Korea's Jiyai Shin, is one of seven Asians in the top 10. Only Kerr, No. 3 Suzann Pettersen of Norway and No. 10 Michelle Wie of the United States are not from Asia. Take it further and only Paula Creamer at No. 11 and Morgan Pressel at No. 17 also represent the U.S. in the top 20; 14 of the top 25 are from Asia.

The argument for a negative connotation is that U.S. sports fans tend to be parochial and that, short of personalities such as Sweden's Sorenstam and Mexico's Ochoa, a non-U.S. player such as Shin does not move the needle in the U.S.

Kerr does. She has a track record and a following. Her story is not new. She lost 50 pounds in 1999 and has kept it off. She has steadily progressed on the tour, going from a 73.44 scoring average in 1997 to 69.86 last year. Besides last year's LPGA major, she won the 2007 Women's U.S. Open.

She took up the cause of breast cancer when her mother was diagnosed with the disease in 2002. Her mother beat it, and Kerr has helped raise more than $1.2 million, including $50 for every birdie she makes. A cancer center in New Jersey has been named for her.

She is articulate, well-connected and passionate about the need for increased marketing of the players. She is as aggressive with tour issues as she is with 10-foot putts. She knows where she has been and how long it has taken her to get where she is now.

"I would like to be one of the faces of the tour," she said.

She wanted to say she'd like to be the face of the tour, but she knew that, politically, that might be taken wrong.

Cristie Kerr's LPGA Tour is complicated.

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