New LPGA Event in Phoenix a “Head-Scratcher”

As soon as Arizona hosts the Waste Management Phoenix Open (Feb. 3-6) in Scottsdale followed by the WGC-Accenture World Match Play Championship (Feb. 23-27) in Tucson, professional golf in the desert as we know it will take a huge twist with the all-new RR Donnelley LPGA Founders Cup in Phoenix (March 18-20).

Earlier this month, LPGA Commissioner Michael Whan announced that the Founders Cup would bring the women’s game back to the Valley of the Sun after a one-year absence. The tournament, Whan informed us, would honor the original 13 Founders of the LPGA, which dates back to 1950, and that the charity for the event will be the LPGA-USGA Girls Clubs.

Oh, yes, and there would be a $1.3 million “mock’’ purse, meaning none of the players would get paid to play at Wildfire’s Faldo Golf Course, although expenses and rooms at the adjacent J.W. Marriott Resort & Spa would be picked up for players and caddies.

At the time of Whan’s announcement, he was asked how the players would react to basically teeing it up for “free’’? Being a professional spin doctor, the always-energetic Whan said his legions gave him a standing ovation when he first brought up the unique format last summer during a players’ meeting. And, yes, the top players will all be in Phoenix this spring, he promised.

Now, in the aftermath of his eloquent gesture, there are those who are questioning Whan’s idea even if some – well, the vast majority –don’t want to go on the record. Seriously, what player would speak out against a charity or the tradition established by the original 13 Founders, “to leave the game better than they found it’’? No, this is a head-scratcher where almost everybody will fall in line silently but totally perplexed.

Kristy McPherson, who is in that elite player category, did tell Golfweek that she doesn’t mind the idea of giving the purse back to charity, as long as she gets a little say in what charity gets the dough. Annika Sorenstam, the retired legend who still gets asked her opinion whenever possible, had this to say when Golfweek asked if she was supportive of the plan: “Not every decision requires 100 percent approval’’ of the LPGA council.

So whether or not this move to add a “mock’’ purse to Phoenix is a good one remains to be seen. Chances are the players would have been a lot more supportive had the LPGA added a few more tournaments to the schedule for 2011. As it stands, the LPGA lost two events from 2010 and gained three for this season, although it ended up being a “push’’ considering the players won’t get paid for the new Phoenix event.

If I was a player, I certainly would not be impressed with what Whan has planned for 2011. Prize money is flat at $44 million, the average purse is $1.75 million, and only 13 of the 25-tournament schedule will be played here in the U.S., meaning travel expenses continue to rise. By comparison, the PGA Tour’s war chest this year is $288 million with an average purse of $6 million.

Breaking it down a little further, only 70 players made $100,000 or more last year on the LPGA, with only eight topping $1 million. On the PGA Tour side of the ledger, 207 players earned more that $100,000 with 90 eclipsing $1 million. And, by the way, it takes about $100,000 a year just for a player’s expenses.

Of course, LPGA players won’t have to worry about expenses in Phoenix, as it’s one of the perks, along with “official money’’ (an odd phrase since there isn’t any) and Rolex player of the year points. The top three Founders finishers (who haven’t previously qualified) also will get into another new tournament, the Countdown to the Titleholders, a season-ending event that will feature the LPGA’s richest first prize — $500,000. Again, by comparison, most of the PGA Tour’s 40-some tournaments pay out $1 million or more.

So the question becomes: is the timing for the Founders Cup and its “mock’’ purse way off base? And is this just a band-aid to take away the “ouch’’ for the players as well as Phoenix?

You see, there are other things that will make the Founders Cup way different than anything else ever before seen in the desert. Like it’s probably going to be here for only one year. That’s right, the title sponsor, RR Donnelley, a printing and digital solutions company based back East, would like to move the tournament to where most of its employees and there families are located, chiefly in New York and Pennsylvania.

Even though Whan said there is some “flexibility’’ in when and if the tournament is moved, it apparently is one year and out with high hopes of attracting yet another title sponsor for yet another new LPGA tournament in Phoenix. The hope is that if we do get another corporate entity to cough up some bucks– this would be the ninth different LPGA tournament in the Valley dating back to the Sun City Classic in 1980 – we get a “real’’ purse and it’s lucrative.

Hey, the hard-working women of the LPGA deserve it. And for that matter, so do the golf fans that live in Arizona.

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