Lady Golfers in the Spotlight

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Today marked the final round of the year’s biggest professional tournament for female golfers, the United States Women’s Open. And in typical fashion, it was a dramatic ending, with a come-from-behind victory by Eun-Hee Ji of South Korea. The 23-year old sunk a 20-foot birdie putt on the finishing hole to finish ahead of crowd favorites Cristie Kerr and Paula Creamer.

But for many the real drama was behind the scenes, not on the well manicured Saucon Valley Country Club course in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Golf week Magazine reported earlier in the week that more than a dozen players had signed a letter to the LPGA’s Board of Directors asking that LPGA Tour Commissioner Carolyn Bivens resign. They apparently blame Bivens more than the weak economy for the seven tournament sponsorships the tour has lost since 2007.

The New York Times and Golf Digest report Bivens will indeed step down this week. But the player’s letter was apparently just the final blow to Biven’s precarious position. She has been criticized for pushing sponsors too hard to increase player purses at a time when corporations are cutting back marketing budgets. And she had to quickly rescind her English-only policy for tour players in 2008 after a firestorm of protest.

"I think Carolyn has done a lot of great things for our tour and I think she worked really hard," tour veteran and LPGA Board Member Juli Inkster said. "But some of the things she tried just didn't work. We're a global tour. I'd really like to see us get back to playing more tournaments here in the United States and then go overseas.”

Sports Illustrated senior writers Alan Shipnuck and Gary Van Sickle chipped in, saying in an e-mail, "It's clear Bivens' hard-charging personal style has rubbed a lot of players and corporate types the wrong way, but you can't fault her original vision: raise purses, improve the pension and retirement benefits, and expand the tour's TV presence.”

The well respected writers went on to say, “The problem seems to be that Bivens has stuck to her hard-line negotiating even as the economy has imploded. Sponsors are hard-pressed to maintain their current commitments, and she's asking for them to pour in more money for next year and beyond. ... Sponsors are dropping like autumn leaves. She didn't cause this problem, but her tactics made the problem worse, and quicker."

That attitude surprised many, who considered her extensive media and marketing background a natural to elevate the profile of the LPGA. There has been no replacement yet announced for Bivens, who makes a reported $600,000 a year.

Allow me a disclaimer here. I am a big fan of women golfers. I enjoy playing with fellow amateurs on my home course, and while on vacation. Playing with the professionals during LPGA pro-am tournaments is a thrill, and watching them on television is a constant reminder of how good they really are. So while I generally side with management, this time I think labor has it right.

During the recent Sybase LPGA tournament in New Jersey, I had the opportunity to play in the Pro-Am with Paula Creamer, known as “the pink lady” because that is what she likes to wear. But it’s not for attention. Her great game is enough to grab headlines. She just likes pink. Paula was one of the players who signed that letter asking the Board to relieve Bivens.

During our round, we played right behind the world’s number one female golfer, Lorena Ochoa, who also signed the letter. Paula offered me some golf tips after yet another disastrous shot. I smiled, thanked her for the kind gesture, and then said “let’s worry about your game because mine is beyond redemption”. Watching Paula and her fierce competitor Lorena play the game was a real treat. These girls are good.

And they are also great for the game. They exude professionalism both on and off the course, despite enormous financial pressures. During a match with up-and-comer Paige Mackenzie, who left a desk job to join the tour, she told me she needs to make at least $3,000 to $5,000 a month to stay on tour. But despite that constant tension, Paige pointed to the course behind us, smiled and said with pride, “this is my home office”.

I do feel bad for Bivens, because she did try in her own way to improve the LPGA. And she is also a victim to the ravages of the weak economy. But just as in the game of golf, at the end of the round it’s winning that counts.

(Brian Banmiller is a national Business Correspondent for CBS News Radio, free lance writer and public speaker. The former television business news anchor in San Francisco can be reached at brian@banmilleronbusiness.com .)