Women's pro golf circuit on the right track

TODD SAELHOF, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 11:33 AM ET

Women's pro golf circuit chugsalong in Canada despite tourwoes elsewhere

Never mind the LPGA Tour's shaky direction south of the border.

The state of the women's pro circuit in Canada continues to chug along on just the right track, thank you very much.

That's because of a solid sponsor, CN, a devoted host, the RCGA, and a proud Canadian golf heritage when it comes to the Canadian Women's Open, says tournament director Sean Van Kesteren.

"It's been a roller-coaster ride for the LPGA this year, primarily in the U.S. with the economy as bad as it's been," Van Kesteren said.

"But here, the train tracks are going in the right direction," Van Kesteren continued. "We're in the unique position that we have an excellent sponsor. And we're optimistic CN will extend its sponsorship beyond 2010."

First things first ... the 2009 CN Canadian Women's Open, which tees up Thursday at Priddis Greens Golf & Country Club southwest of Calgary.

A who's-who of LPGA players headline the 72-hole event that -- at $2.75 million, again thanks to CN -- boasts the second biggest purse of the season.

It's a can't-miss event on the schedule, especially during a campaign that's proved to be rocky because of money issues and lost tournaments, mostly state-side.

"It really starts from the top," said Van Kesteren, who doubles as an RCGA official. "It's how do we put together the best event, and it's mostly CN who makes that happen. They make it their marquee event. CN says, 'Let's make it the best on tour.'

"And I think it is."

The tournament director will be hard-pressed to get much argument from the players themselves.

When the LPGA stars are not praising the sponsor for its extra effort or the golf courses on which the event is played, they're raving about Canadian hospitality.

And it's not simply lip service being paid since Priddis Greens will welcome the top 50 players on this season's money list.

It's a field that rivals -- and even exceeds -- what the year's other four majors boast.

"The purse is top 3 on the season, it's always played on the best courses and in areas that really support the sport, and everybody comes to the Canadian Women's Open," said Canada's own Lorie Kane, a veteran of the LPGA Tour. "The creme de la creme will be at Priddis.

"For a long time, I've called it the fifth major."

Kane isn't the only one.

The term "fifth major" isn't thrown around lightly among the circuit's membership, says defending champion Katherine Hull.

"I definitely think it's as good or better than some of our majors," said Hull, who topped the field at the Ottawa Hunt Club last August. "That's based on the strength of the field. It's always a tournament that everybody wants on the schedule."

"And obviously, the big purse helps a lot," added Van Kesteren. "But even if we didn't have the purse, the players still want to come because they love Canada and the event."

That's because of a track record that dates back before CN first associated itself with the event.

The Canadian Women's Open was once a women's major, with much credit given to the title sponsor of the du Maurier Classic.

When anti-tobacco legislation kicked in, du Maurier left the picture after the 2000 tourney. And even though BMO stepped up to be the new Canadian Women's Open sponsor, the major status was stripped and given to the British Women's Open beginning in '01.

CN then took on the Canadian tourney in '06 and gave the event a boost in London, said Van Kesteren.

"Then in Edmonton '07, CN took it to the next level," Van Kesteren said. "That was a great event. We had a good field, and we had a lot of spectators on site (at the Royal Mayfair).

"This year, we want to accommodate 70,000 people on-site. We've got a big play area for kids -- a family fun zone -- and we want to make sure everybody can get a hotdog or a souvenir."

And everybody involved wants the Canadian Women's Open to live up to its billing as "the fifth major."

"I think we already are," Van Kesteren said. "There's no question -- and we want to regain that status officially."

Regardless, the LPGA itself is tickled pink with the success of the Canadian Women's Open.

Acting commissioner Marty Evans, who took over a listing LPGA tour ship in July, praises the Canadian stop as a model event on a calendar that's been beset with problems.

The number of tourneys dipped to a decade-low 27 this year after reaching 41 10 years ago.

"We went through a little bit of turmoil," Evans said. "But we've reached out to tournament owners and sponsors -- people like the RCGA -- and I'm hearing some really positive things.

"Each tournament has its own particular situation, but we're looking forward to 2010," continued Evans, who insists her commitment to the circuit's top position is interim. "Practically speaking, we're going to come out of this recession, but there's always a lag when it comes to sports in a down economy.

"It's going to take a while, but we have a good feeling."

The new vision of the LPGA is to rebuild a strong schedule, especially in North America.

"We've had a lot of good conversations for 2010," Evans said. "I will say we expect to have a good, solid schedule for next year. And I would say that events such as the Solheim Cup give us good momentum. They show how exciting the women's competitive golf scene is, and we want to capitalize on the buzz."

Same goes for the Canadian Women's Open, said Evans, adding the blossoming golf interest in Canada is a prime example of how the sport is being embraced worldwide.

"I see a growing fan base around the world -- it is so popular," Evans said. "And no question, the Canadian Women's Open is a world-class kind of tournament for us."

For the most part, those on the tour believe the change in leadership -- with the forcing out of Carolyn Bivens as LPGA commissioner -- is a positive.

"Turmoil is a good word to use," said Kane, when asked to describe the state of the LPGA the last year. "It's just been a tough time for us, and we've just hit a time when we've needed to make a change.

"The economy has not been easy -- it's been down in the U.S., and our tour has felt the crunch.

"Carolyn had a very clear vision. Unfortunately, the economy went the other way. What was happening was we were losing tournaments, and that in itself as a group of players said, 'That can't be happening.'

"It's important to engage people, and sometimes you have to remind golfers of that," Kane added. "This tour was built on building relationships, and this tour has gotten away from that."

todd.saelhof@sunmedia.ca

---

LPGA RANKINGS

1. Lorena Ochoa

2009 Earnings:

$803,863 US

2. Yani Tseng

2009 Earnings:

$908,960 US

3. Cristie Kerr

2009 Earnings:

$1,309,202 US

4. Paula Creamer

2009 Earnings:

$898,469 US

5. Jiyai Shin

2009 Earnings:

$1,177,607 US

6. Suzann Pettersen

2009 Earnings:

$745,845 US

7. Karrie Webb

2009 Earnings:

$753,878 US

8. In Kyung Kim

2009 Earnings:

$1,062,286 US

9. Angela Stanford

2009 Earnings:

$667,267 US

10. Helen Alfredsson

2009 Earnings:

$336,880 US


Videos

Photos