LPGA looks to stars for season-opening Tournament of Champions

You’ve got to give LPGA commissioner Mike Whan credit for at least one thing: he’s not afraid to take chances. And, he has been quick to admit, “When you’re innovative you’ve got to be willing to strike out some times.’’

The LPGA begins its 69th season this week with a new, innovative event – the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions at the Tranquilo course at the Four Seasons Golf and Sports Club Orlando in Lake Buena Vista, FL. It tees off on Thursday (JAN 17)

This season-opener is more than just an event for LPGA players. It’s being combined with a celebrity tournament. Thirty-six winners on the LPGA circuit over the last two seasons will compete over 72 holes for a $1.2 million purse and 45 celebrity golfers will compete at the same time in a Modified Stableford format for $500,000.

Good idea or not? Time will tell. With the celebrity element, the focus won’t be just on the women’s game. That’s not so good.

Mike Flaskey, chief executive officer for Diamond Resorts, wants the celebrity component for one big reason. “The celebrity side moves the needle for TV rankings,’’ he said. No argument there, but the quality of the golf usually isn’t anything special.

Flaskey has tried other versions for the event over the previous four years. It was strictly a weekend pro-am the first year. Then, to entice TV coverage, a challenge season event dominated by players from PGA Tour Champions was created. Last year 32 touring pros competed in a Modified Stableford event and four of them – Brooke Henderson, Brittany Lincicome, Brittany Lang and Gerina Piller – were women. Henderson finished seventh and none of the other three could crack the top 20.

This year represents a big step forward for both the women and the event itself. The LPGA will bring more good players for a no-cut tournament. It’ll be an official event so the money earned will count in the season totals. Players had to earn the right to play in the event; they didn’t get in via invitation. And the event will take a step forward by adding a more meaningful competition and a bigger purse.

The PGA Tour and PGA Tour Champions have already opened their seasons with limited field events. Now the women will, too – but with celebrities also in the mix. Flaskey has called it “the most unique golf tournament in the world.’’

The celebrity element can be a funny thing, though. Will people come, or tune in to TV coverage on The Golf Channel and/or NBC, to watch the celebrities? That’s usually determined by the name recognition of those participating in the tournament. The Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions has stars from other sports along with recording artists Lee Brice and Colt Ford.

The stars from other sports include Roger Clemens, John Smoltz, Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, Clay Buchholtz, Josh Donaldson, Terry Francona and Tom Glavine from baseball; Marcus Allen, Larry Fitzgerald, Brian Urlacher, Richard Dent and Mark Rypien from football; Jeremy Roenick from hockey; Ray Allen from basketball and Mardy Fish from tennis.

Whan has arranged a season opener a week earlier than last year and there won’t be another event in the U.S. until the Bank of Hope Foundation tournament in Phoenix, which runs from March 21-24. There’ll be four tournaments — played in Australia, Thailand and Singapore — in between the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions and the LPGA’s first full-field event of the season in the U.S.

The second LPGA tournament, the ISPS Vic Open in Australia, is also a new event with an innovative format. Men on the Australasian and European PGA tours will compete concurrently with women from the LPGA and Australian women’s circuit. Also new to the LPGA schedule is the Aon Risk Reward Challenge. It’s a season-long competition on both the LPGA and PGA Tour with the winners on each receiving $1 million.

This LPGA campaign offers 33 official events in 12 countries plus the Solheim Cup team event. A record $70.55 million in official prize money will be on the line. The season will end where it will begin, in Florida. The season-ending CME Group Tour Championship will be played in Naples in November. It’ll have a $5 million purse with the winner getting $1.5 million – the largest single purse in the history of women’s golf.