LPGA Tour Commissioner Mike Whan has hope that Augusta National Golf Club may one day open its gates to an event for the sport’s top women’s tour after the Masters Tournament host added female members last year.
Whan, who took over as LPGA commissioner in 2010, said he contacts the club in Augusta, Georgia, every year about hosting a women’s tournament in addition to the Masters, the first of golf’s four annual major championships for men. This year’s Masters is scheduled for April 11-14.
Whan, 48, said he’s not discouraged about being rebuffed by Augusta National officials and said he understands why “it’s not the right time and may never be the right time.” Augusta National spokesman Steve Ethun didn’t return an e-mail message seeking comment.
“I don’t know anybody who loves the game who wouldn’t view Augusta National as maybe the best golf platform in the world,” Whan said yesterday in an interview. “Would I like to see the best female golfers in the world on that stage? Of course.”
Whan has helped the LPGA Tour add five tournaments since taking over, while prize purses have climbed $8.5 million this year. The tour also has increased television coverage by 50 percent, with almost 93 percent of that aired live, up from 40 percent in 2010.
The LPGA Tour begins its U.S. season this week in Phoenix with the RR Donnelley LPGA Founders Cup after opening the year with tournaments in Australia, Thailand and Singapore.
“It’s a great time for us,” Whan said in New York. “I always say to the players, ‘This early part of the season is when stars are made.’ People who do well in April, May tend to be talked about all the way through the summer. It’s a break-out opportunity.”
Whan acknowledged he doesn’t know if he’d like the idea of a women’s event if he were a board member at Augusta National, which was founded in 1933 by golf champion Bobby Jones and Wall Street financier Clifford Roberts.
“They think about making sure that Augusta National and that brand -- that piece of property -- is as good as can be whenever they open the doors and the cameras of the world to it,” Whan said. “They question I think to some extent whether they could do two and still have the one the way the one is.”
He’s not about to stop his pursuit.
“I just figure I’ll just keep asking because if they ever change their mind, I’ll be somewhere near the top of the list of people who have asked the longest,” Whan said.
Augusta National admitted former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Rainwater Inc. financier Darla Moore in August as its first female members following almost a decade of scrutiny over its all-male membership.
Augusta National for decades has allowed women to play the course, which doesn’t have a formal set of women’s tees, and Whan said many LPGA players have teed it up at the home of the Masters. He also said the club has given a “six-figure” check to the LPGA every year “as long as he can remember” to support its Girls Golf program. Run jointly by the LPGA and U.S. Golf Association, Girls Golf gives 20,000 girls in the U.S. each year the chance to play the sport for the first time.
Whan said his next step in promoting the growth of the tour is continuing to increase exposure. The tour is now watched by viewers in 160 countries, up from 60 nations five or six years ago, and Whan said his goal is 225.
Perhaps no tournament would boost that exposure more than one held at Augusta National.
“The world would watch,” Whan said. “Just like the female members, it would send a pretty cool message about the freedom of women to play sort of anywhere. And I know our players would love to test themselves. It would be a cool measuring stick because that’s one of the few courses in the world that all of us think we know.”
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