As LPGA struggles, players call for the commissioner's ouster
Jul 9th 2009 3:30PM
Updated Dec 4th 2009 6:04PM
With the arrival of the U.S. Women's Open, which begins Thursday, this week was supposed to be a highlight of the year on the Ladies Professional Golf Association Tour. But instead of celebrating the field of talented international stars, led by the lithesome Mexican Lorena Ochoa, the LPGA finds itself enmeshed in controversy: An untold number of influential players have signed a letter calling for Tour Commissioner Carolyn Bivens to resign.
Although the timing of the unrest is surprising -- given the potential distraction it creates during the most prestigious event on the LPGA calendar -- the circumstances behind it are well known to followers of the tour. The LPGA is reeling in these tough financial times. Seven of its tournaments, including all three in Hawaii, have been canceled in the past two years due to a lack of corporate sponsorship. Six more are currently without sponsors and in danger of being lost.
In all, there are to be 29 events played on the LPGA Tour this year, compared with 46 events on the men's counterpart, the PGA Tour. The New York Times, in a front-page story in May, described how LPGA players are essentially forced to take unpaid furloughs during the many weeks this year when their tour goes dark.
So far, only one LPGA pro, Suzann Pettersen of Norway, the No. 6-ranked player in the world, has acknowledged signing the petition. "All we are doing is standing up for our tour," she told Golfweek magazine, which broke the story this week. "Now it's up to our leadership and our board to find a solution."
No one, of course, is blaming Bivens for the economic climate. But some players and many critics in the media argue that her hard-line management style and MBA vocabulary ("cross-generation," "multi-platform") have made matters even worse.
When Bivens, now 56, took the job in September 2005, she arrived with high expectations. She was the first woman commissioner in the history of the tour, which was founded in 1950. She also came from a high-powered corporate background in marketing and media strategies, having served as president of Initiative Media North America, the largest media buying and planning company in the U.S., and as head of worldwide advertising for USA Today. She promised to expand the LPGA's global reach and to leverage its brand to a far greater extent than it had been before.
Bivens's tenure has been marked by tumult from the start. Seven senior tour staff members either quit or were fired in her first 10 months on the job. At the same time, Bivens developed a prickly relationship with the press. Then, in perhaps her lowest moment until now, she made national headlines last year over a proposal to require LPGA players -- many of whom are of South Korean descent -- to pass an English fluency test to show they could schmooze with corporate executives during pro-am events. The idea prompted a flood of criticism, and Bivens later abandoned it.
In terms of lining up tournament backing, this year she asked sponsors for higher fees -- in some cases upwards of $200,000 more -- to cover the costs of television production and a new scoring system. Sponsors protested and, for a variety of reasons, a number of them pulled out, including Corning Inc. (GLW), which decided to end a beloved tradition of lending its name and financial support to an annual tournament in upstate New York.
One of the commissioner's strongest critics has been Geoff Shackelford, the author of a shelf full of golf books and the game's most influential blogger. "It's clear from the comments by local tournament officials that several tournaments would make a stronger effort to survive," Shackelford told me, "if they weren't hemmed in by Bivens's stance on certain requirements." He said Bivens's biggest mistake was "dreaming a little too big and when the economy collapsed, not putting her vision aside and waiting things out." What's more, he added, "for a marketing person, she sure doesn't know how to work the press."
Bivens's chances of survival appear to be as slim as a one-iron. The LPGA board, which will decide her fate, consists of seven players and six independent directors. Five of the seven players are reported to be in favor of ousting her, meaning only two of the independent directors would need to back the move for it to happen.
LPGA spokesman David Higdon issued a statement saying the tour's main focus this week is the Open, at Saucon Valley Country Club in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Alluding to the Bivens controversy, Higdon said, "It's not in the best interest of women's golf to openly discuss internal matters, but you can rest assured that the LPGA and its Board of Directors consider any topic raised by the players seriously since we are a player organization."
It sounds as if Bivens, as LPGA commissioner, could be nearing the end of her round.