The New Fountain of Youth Part 1: The LPGA Tour

By: Nancy Berkley


Lexi Thompson, age 16, the youngest player ever to be admitted to the LPGA Tour (officially as of next season), will be playing in two weeks in the inaugural season-long CME Group Titleholders tournament at the Grand Cypress Resort in Orlando, Fla. The Titleholders is the LPGA season's grand finale and promises a real show of talent - some familiar names and some new names will be competing.

Last season the final tournament was the LPGA Tour Championship, which was also played at Grand Cypress. To qualify for last year's tournament, the players had to be among the tour's top money winners.

CME Group Titleholders is not only a new sponsor for the season's last tournament, but also shows off a new format as well. The format is innovative and in line with the strategy of Mike Whan, who is now finishing his second year as the LPGA commissioner.

The amazing coincidence is that Thompson will be playing in an event named after one of the tournaments in women's golf. The first "Titleholders" was held in 1937, and was won by Patty Berg, an LPGA founder.

The early Titleholders tournaments were organized like what is more commonly known as an invitational. There were not many "professional" women golfers in the 1930s and '40s, so winners of various women's amateur events around the country, along with the winners of what was then just a handful of professional tournaments, were invited to participate.

The Titleholders tournament was held annually from 1937 to 1973 (except for four years from 1967 through 1971). The slate of winners is really a list of the pioneers in women's golf and the LPGA. Louise Suggs, a founder of the LPGA, won four times; Babe Zaharias in 1946; and Peggy Kirk Bell, playing as an amateur, won it in 1949.

By reaching back in its history the LPGA is finding roots and strength. It's typical of Whan to build on the historical foundations of the LPGA, just like he has done with the Founders Tournament, which honors the originators of the LPGA and supports the LPGA-USGA Girls Program.

Although the LPGA is now over 60 years old, it's getting younger and younger, year by year; the median age of all the women who participated in an LPGA Tournament this season is 27. That looks about the age of the woman on the LPGA's logo.

Joining Lexi Thompson in the CME Group Titleholders will be 65 other players. It's a fountain of youth playing this tournament. About half the players are 25 or younger. If you're into the ages of women golfers, check this statistic. At last count, there will be only seven LPGA Tour Players over 35 in the Titleholders, two over 40, and none older than 45.

The format of this new CME Group Titleholders is unique and I think will be very effective. Here's how it works. The top-three winners of each of the LPGA Tour's 22 tournaments who are members of the LPGA Tour and have "not yet otherwise qualified" earns a ticket to the Titleholders. That guarantees a field of 66 players in the no-cut, four-day championship.

And, here's how the qualifying-formula plays out. The very first tournament of the 2011 season was the Honda LPGA in Thailand in February 2011. The top-three finishers were Yani Tseng, Michelle Wie and Karrie Webb, who all qualified for the Titleholders. At any of the subsequent LPGA tournaments, if that trio finished in the top three they were passed over and a fourth- or fifth-place finisher - or farther down the list as the season progressed - would earn a gain a spot to the Titleholders. The LPGA developed a cute theme for this: "I won my ticket to the Titleholders."

The LPGA's latest event was the Mizuno Classic, won by Momoku Uedo of Japan. Since she hadn't qualified for the Titleholders, Uedo "won her ticket" to it. The next two highest finishers, Shanshan Feng from China and South Korean Na Yeon Choi, had already qualified for the Titleholders. They were "passed over" and the next highest finishers - Christina Kim of the U.S. and Pornanong Phatlum of Thailand who had tied for 18th became the next qualifiers. (Several higher finishers in the Mizuno Classic were not eligible because they either had already qualified or were not LPGA Tour members.)

The LPGA format is simple and at the opposite end of the mathematically complicated PGA Tour FedEx Cup calculations. But most important is that the tournament offers an opportunity for emerging young players from around the world to compete among the best in women's professional golf.

When I interviewed Whan last November during last season's final tournament, he summarized his goals as the new LPGA Commissioner. See that interview at http://www.cybergolf.com/golf_news/a_conversation_with_lpga_commissioner_whan_the_future_of_the_lpga. His goals were: To promote youth, talent and globalization. With the help of a supportive sponsor, CME Group, the commissioner got want he wanted: A Titleholders tournament that highlights youth, talent and globalization.

The CME Group sponsorship is also worth noting because it supports Whan's sponsorship strategy as he outlined last November. The CME Group does not produce a consumer product. No one watching the Titleholders will run to the grocery store or pharmacy to buy a "CME" product. The company operates internationally and owns and manages sophisticated financial products such as stock indexes and exchanges. Among the CME Group's most recent acquisitions is the Dow Jones Industrial Average - an index of stock performance.

Why would the CME Group sponsor this particular LPGA tournament? I asked Mike a related question last year. Here's his answer: "Most of our sponsors are looking to us to provide a unique experience for their corporate customers, such as their suppliers and dealers. When Walmart and P&G sponsor a tournament and they get to invite the top executives of the companies they work with and we give them a fantastic experience with our players, that's what they are looking for. And that's the unique experience we deliver - not just with U.S. players but with players from all over the world on courses all over the world."

Whan's strategy seems to be working - at least with Terrence Duffy, executive chairman of the CME Group. For several years, LPGA players have been invited to participate in the golf events at CME Group annual conferences. It developed a relationship with the LPGA and that's how the CME Group Titleholders sponsorship originated.

Whan has a broad vision when it comes to his sponsors. At the Titleholders and, assuming on television as well, the season's sponsors of the 22 LPGA tournaments will be showcased and highlighted. As he promised, "We will showcase every tournament title sponsor so you'll see Kraft Nabisco, State Farm, Wegmans, Safeway, Evian and all our business partners represented. It truly will be a celebration of the partners who make the LPGA so special."

There are only three "tickets" remaining for the Titleholders and they will be won at the final tournament of the LPGA season in Guadalajara, Mexico at the Lorena Ochoa Invitational on November 10-13. Don't miss the Lorena's Invitational and don't miss the Titleholders.

The CME Group Titleholders will be played in Orlando November 17-20 at the Grand Cypress Golf Course. If you live in the area or planning a visit, come watch the fountain-of-youth players compete. For a link, see http://www.lpga.com/titleholders.aspx?mid=1&pid=0.

And, bring your family. Any child under the age of 17 is admitted free if accompanied by a ticketed-adult. Also check the schedule of events for children at the tournament. Under the direction of Kiernan Schindler, the new head of the LPGA's Girls Golf initiative, an entire day of activities is planned for children on Saturday, November 18.

There will be many Lexi Thompson followers at the tournament. She's an amazing talent with a great career ahead of her. Interestingly, when I worked with Golfer Girl Magazine (which, unfortunately, is no longer published), our second issue in the fall of 2007 featured "Alexis Thompson Making History" on the cover with a wonderful interview of this then 13-year-old by Courtney Hooton - then only a couple of years older herself. The interview is still available on the www.golfergirlmagazine.com website (click on the cover and go to page 22) and confirms what maturity Lexi brings to the world of women's golf and to the LPGA Tour.

And, on the topic of girls golf, Part 2 of this "Fountain of Youth" series will feature an interview with Schindler and all the changes taking place in the LPGA/USGA Girls Golf Program. For a quick look, see the changes already in place on the Girls Golf pages of the LPGA website and the new motto, "Changing Lives - One Swing at a Time." For more, visit http://www.lpga.com/content_3.aspx?mid=7&pid=8.

Nancy Berkley, President of Berkley Golf Consulting, is an expert on women's golf and junior-girls golf. She is a frequent contributor to www.cybergolf.com/womensgolf. Her book, "Women Welcome Here! A Guide to Growing Women's Golf," published by the National Golf Foundation, is an industry reference on marketing golf to women and spotting trends within the industry. She offers information and advice about the golf industry on www.berkleygolfconsulting.com and is often quoted in national publications. She was a contributing editor of "Golf for Women" magazine and a founding advisor of "Golfer Girl Magazine." Her interviews with women in the golf industry now appear on www.golfergirlcareers.com. Nancy lives in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., and is a graduate of the University of Minnesota, Harvard University and Rutgers Law School. After a business and legal career, she decided to write about the game she learned and loved as a teenager. She describes herself as a good bogey golfer with permanent potential.

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