Fond Farewell Tour
Charlie Mechem began his final year of duty as commissioner of the LPGA tour by dropping in on the Tournament of Champions in Orlando last week. That was hardly a surprise. In four years on the job Mechem has traveled to every LPGA event on the schedule, logging more than 2.5 million miles and spreading a lot of goodwill. "We're going to miss Charlie," says Beth Daniel. "He's a friend to so many of us."
Mechem has been more than a friend. He has been a savior to a tour that desperately needed leadership and stability following the aborted reign of Bill Blue, a man who showed little interest in the job or the tour in his two years at the helm.
Mechem, who joined the LPGA after 24 years in television, has increased the tour's on-air exposure and its purses. Prize money has risen from $16 million to $24 million in his tenure. This year 26 events will be broadcast, 10 of them on the Golf Channel. There are still gaping holes in the early schedule, but Mechem has brought the LPGA respect it had never had within the golf establishment.
"Charlie's worked the job," says Herb Lotman, chairman of Keystone Foods, which is a sponsor of the LPGA Championship. In 1991 Lotman was about to take his company's dollars away from the tournament and put them behind a Senior PGA Tour event. But one meeting with the newly appointed Mechem persuaded Lotman to remain faithful. "Charlie helped build the credibility that his predecessor destroyed," says Lotman.
Daniel, a former LPGA executive committee member, says choosing a candidate to replace Mechem "may be the most important decision our tour makes." The leading candidates are Jack Frazee, former chairman of Centel; Barbara Litrell, publisher of McCall's magazine; and Jan Thompson, vice president and general manager of Wilson Golf.
A key question is whether the time is right for a woman commissioner. "Golf is a man's world, and we're women trying to succeed in a man's world," says Daniel. "I don't think we should hire a woman just to hire a woman. If there's a woman who has the credentials and the charisma to be commissioner, then fine. But we shouldn't go out seeking a woman commissioner." Mechem is typically diplomatic on the subject. "There are women capable of doing the job, and I have no question that there will be a woman commissioner of the LPGA in the future," he says. "The selection committee and the players have to determine whether now's the time or later."
A Happy Return
With part of a donor's kneecap and a titanium plate in his neck, Lee Trevino went to Puerto Rico last week hoping just to finish the season-opening Senior tour Tournament of Champions. He not only finished, he also threatened to win.
Eleven weeks after undergoing surgery to repair a ruptured cervical disk, Trevino relied on his short game to make up for an obvious loss of strength. He handled heavy winds on the East course at the Hyatt Dorado Beach Resort by gripping down on his irons and punching approach shots. Trevino was tied for the lead after 36 holes, having taken only 27 and 25 putts in the first and second rounds. After that second round he said he would sleep with his putter and wedge that night. "I don't care if I shoot 80 tomorrow," he said. "I've proven something to myself."
On Sunday the rust and the fatigue caught up with him. Trevino was four over on the back nine with bogeys on the 11th, 12th, 14th, 15th and 16th holes and tied for sixth place in the 20-man field, five strokes out of a playoff.
Trevino plans a full schedule in 1995. He will compete in the Senior Skins Game in Kohala Coast, Hawaii, on Jan. 28 and 29 and then go to Key Biscayne, Fla., to defend his title at the Royal Caribbean Classic on Feb. 3-5. That's more than Trevino expected on Oct. 26 when he reported to Dr. Ralph Rashbaum at the Texas Back Institute in Dallas for surgery. In 1983 Rashbaum repaired a career-threatening ruptured disk in Trevino's lower back. This time around Rashbaum inserted the donor bone between Trevino's sixth and seventh cervical vertebrae, bracing it by screwing the titanium plate over the area.
Those who know Trevino expect a big season. Two years ago, coming off thumb surgery, he won three times and was fourth on the money list, with nearly $1 million in earnings. The rehabilitation for the neck operation includes a conditioning and stretching program. Twelve pounds lighter than he was in 1994, Trevino says he has never been in better shape. "When I get dangerous is after rehab, because I do three times as much practicing," he says. "It happened with the thumb, it happened with my lower back. I'll know when I'm finished, and I hope it's not because I'm hurt. I want to prove to myself more than anyone that a little injury is not going to make me quit."
Baby on Board
Playing while pregnant might seem cumbersome, but it is not unheard of on the LPGA tour. Nancy Lopez and Laura Baugh did it several times each. Judy Dickinson did it carrying twins. Myra Blackwelder did it seven months into her pregnancy and finished tied for 16th at the 1987 S&H Golf Classic in St. Petersburg, Fla. The latest two-for-one to walk the LPGA's fairways is Dana Dormann, whose first child is due March 5.
Dormann, who practices at Grand Cypress, shot 81-74-77-80 to finish 33rd in the Tournament of Champions. Dawn Coe-Jones finished with a seven-under-par 281 to beat runner-up Beth Daniel by six strokes. "I had trouble swinging around my stomach," Dormann said. "I know Laura Baugh and other players have said they hit it farther when they were pregnant, but that was definitely not the case for me."
At Golf Channel headquarters in Orlando last week crew members and commentators hurriedly prepared for the network's first day of broadcasting, scheduled for Jan. 17. "The only thing I can equate this to is being in the delivery room when my son, Julian, was born," said Golf Today host Dwayne Ballen. "To see this come into fruition is remarkable."
Ballen represents the progressive stance the Golf Channel has taken in its hiring. Besides being relatively young (33) and unknown in the golf world, Ballen is black. The only other African-American who has had as significant a role broadcasting golf is Bryant Gumbel, a member of NBC's golf team in 1990. For Ballen that gives special meaning to his new assignment. "To African-Americans it means a lot," he says, "because many attempts have been made to make inroads into all facets of the game. It's a slow process, but it has been happening."
Ballen, who previously worked as the sports anchor for the ABC affiliate in Raleigh-Durham, N.C., is not much of a golfer. He played four times in 1994, and "was never near 100," he says. "My wife actually outdrove me once. But just because I'm lousy, doesn't mean I don't love the game. That puts me in line with millions of golfers across the United States." Amen.
A Long Look
At the Shell's Wonderful World of Golf match last summer in Sunningdale, England, Greg Norman received $100,000 for winning while the player he defeated, Nick Faldo, took home $50,000. But the big winner was the PGA Tour, which received $200,000 in rights fees for an event played overseas that involved a member of the European tour (Faldo) and that conflicted with the Deposit Guaranty Golf Classic, a PGA Tour event. Jack Nicklaus, whose production company revived the Shell series, did not use the words extortion or blackmail to describe the Tour's conflicting-event and television-release rules, which were the basis for such hefty rights fees, but when reporters did, he nodded and smiled.
Now the Federal Trade Commission is investigating whether those rules violate antitrust laws. Last week the FTC's staff attorneys sent the commission a report on the subject. It could take five years before the commission makes its ruling, and the future of the PGA Tour hangs in the balance.
A ruling against the Tour would open the doors to rival promoters and give players carte blanche to compete in unsanctioned events. Currently, Tour members are allowed at least three releases per season. More than 95% of release requests are approved, but often with stipulations. Last June, Norman had to play the Greater Hartford Open as a tradeoff for having played a charity exhibition in Seattle.
There has been speculation that Mark McCormack of the International Management Group sicced the FTC on the Tour. McCormack, who sponsors tournaments featuring IMG players worldwide, would have the most to gain should the Tour have to alter its ways. The proposed World Golf Tour would also benefit.
Citing its increased number of tournaments, television hours and contributions to charities over the last 15 years, the Tour contends its rules and regulations have been good for the game and its fans. Two weeks ago PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem and the Tour's legal team traveled to Washington to make these points to legislators and law firms experienced in dealing with federal agencies.
Should the Tour lose at the FTC level, Finchem is prepared to appeal in federal court and, if necessary, in the U.S. Congress. "If we lose, it changes everything," he says. "But we're not going to lose."
THE SHORT GAME
Betsy King is now seeing a sports psychologist to deal with the pressure of qualifying for the LPGA Hall of Fame. She needs one more victory, having gone winless since November 1993. "I've gotten a little bit more analytical," says King, who finished third at the Tournament of Champions. "I'm looking at results more, keeping statistics, trying to see how better to approach each week."
...Helen Dobson had a three-foot par putt on the par-3 8th hole in the opening round at Grand Cypress and walked off the green with a 10. After missing her bogey putt, Dobson temporarily lost control and slashed at the ball while it was still rolling, then did the same thing when she missed her next putt. "It looked like a sword fight out there," said an LPGA official. Dobson made her first par at the 9th for an outbound 53 and withdrew with a rib injury after 17 holes and 89 strokes.