What's the Problem?

LPGA commissioner Carolyn Bivens has increased purses, brought in deep-pocketed new sponsors and made the players' needs priority one. So why isn't she getting more love?
November 27, 2006

A dazzling LPGAseason was winding down last week, and every other night there was a gildedblowout at Mar-a-Lago, Donald Trump's Palm Beach, Fla., estate, to mark theoccasion. There was the host, detailing a recent round of 71. Beside him washis wife, Melania, described as a new mother, but, please. There was Annika,her muscular shoulders gleaming with product, hanging with herboyfriend--business manager Mike McGee, son of Jerry, if you remember thattouring name from yesteryear. There was Sophie Gustafson, the long-whackingSwede, sans husband, Ty Votaw, the former LPGA commissioner who now plays forthe other team (as PGA Tour executive VP international affairs). And there wasVotaw's successor, the diminutive Carolyn Bivens, bejeweled and made up, tendedto by her husband, Bill Bivens, a retired auto executive with a bruisinghandshake and big-shouldered suits. The little mushroom profiteroles? Sogood.

You know thesenames. Annika, of course, but also Michelle (not in this one), Lorena, Karrie,Cristie, Morgan, Paula, Natalie, plus Se Ri and a handful of Kims. Thegreatest, most international collection of talent, hope and looks in the56-year history of the Ladies Professional Golf Association, right? In case youdidn't catch commissioner Bivens's state-of-the-tour address last week, here'sa recap: record purses, record TV viewership, record Internet traffic, recordthis, record that, not to mention the groundbreaking (for golf) step ofcreating a drug-testing policy. Her kicker: "We have the most talented,marketable and trend-setting group of athletes that a sport could ask for.We're providing value for the rest of the world, and we're beginning to benefitfrom a product that's turning into a great return on investment. And the bestis yet to come." Par-tay!

To that report,we are duty-bound to offer this postscript: record infighting in 2006, justoff-the-charts levels for the LPGA, which is saying something.

The conditionswere ideal. Install an agent-of-change commissioner, the first woman ever tohave the job, an outsider to golf's manly culture. Have this new commissionerinspect the books and conclude that the LPGA is, in actual fact, a dolled-upmom-and-pop operation with limited assets working on a shoestring budget, amultinational corporation (in name) that has a meager pension plan and offersno health benefits to its members.

Then watchclosely as this brand-new commissioner, who had never before held a job thatput her in the public eye, makes several rookie mistakes that she won't admitto. These missteps annoy many of the tournament "owners" (as thesponsors have taken to calling themselves), some of the old-guard players(including Sorenstam) and three influential members of the golfing press, LPGAdivision: Jay Coffin of Golfweek; Dottie Pepper, the TV commentator and SI GolfPlus contributor; and Ron Sirak of Golf World.

Naturally, anumber of beloved LPGA staffers left or were fired in the new boss's firstyear. Several tournaments died, and several more likely will. Bivens's moveswould have made Jack Welch and other social Darwinists proud, but they providedexcellent fodder for the commentators, who had a field day with the newcommish.

On one occasionPepper didn't like the way the commissioner dressed. Pepper, who won 17 timesin her playing career and believes the LPGA might be better off as an arm ofthe PGA Tour, saw Bivens apparently wearing shorts at a tour event, a lookPepper feels is unbecoming for a commissioner, a look she had never seen onVotaw or Tim Finchem or any other commissioner. She called Bivens on it in aMay 8 Golf Plus column while Jay Coffin also mentioned it in Golfweek. Bivensquickly responded to Pepper by e-mail: "I saw Jay Coffin's note about mewearing shorts. It wasn't worth the effort to tell him I had on silk,knee-length culottes. Must say I was surprised when I saw the same thing inyour column.... In an industry which continues to place women under amicroscope and perpetuates old stereotypes I was surprised."

Pepper fired backwith an e-mail of her own: "I observed you in person that afternoon, [and]in no way were your shorts knee-length. You are the chosen 'CEO' for the LPGAand regardless of length or style, they were simply not appropriate attire forany person in your position."

Later in thee-mail, Pepper unleashed this broadside: "As a member of the LPGA fornearly 20 years, I am most disappointed with the lack of sincerity and [the]strong-arm tactics being used at this time on every imaginable level. Solid,long-term relationships are what the LPGA has been all about for more than 50years and the main key to its success. I certainly hope these relationships arenot the casualty of your new business plan."

But there werecasualties of Bivens's new business plan--a plan best summed as: Make MoreMoney!--and the ShopRite LPGA Classic, an event Pepper won a decade ago, wasone of them. The tournament, played on a charming, antiquated, buggy DonaldRoss course near Atlantic City, raised more than $12 million for charity overits 21-year history, twice the lifespan of most LPGA events. A new suitor withdeep pockets, the Ginn Clubs & Resorts, coveted the ShopRite's early-Junedate. Larry and Ruth Harrison, the wealthy, retired husband-and-wife team thatran the tournament, felt that Bivens never negotiated in good faith with them.A half year into her tenure as commissioner, the Harrisons said they hadn'teven had a direct conversation with Bivens, until she showed up at this year'sclassic.

Over the summerthe Harrisons and other members of the Tournaments Owners Association met todiscuss the Bivens agenda, which included increasing the tournament sanctioningfees paid to the LPGA from a modest $15,000 (on average) to $100,000. (Themodel is different, but the sponsors of the weekly PGA Tour events pay millionsin rights fees.) The TOA and Bivens had suddenly become adversarial.

In July, Bivenswas scheduled to meet with the TOA board in Denver but pulled out at the lastminute when she heard that the directors had met at a dinner in a downtownDenver restaurant with two former LPGA executives who had left under Bivens'swatch. Bivens says she canceled because the agenda and the purpose of themeeting had changed. Whatever the facts, there was bad blood all the wayaround.

She can beprickly. Last month there was a movers-and-bureaucrats meeting called Golf20/20, an annual confab held in conjunction with the World Golf Hall of Fameinductions. In his seven years as commissioner Votaw had several prime-timespeaking gigs at the conference. When Bivens was not offered a choice timeslot, she blew off the conference altogether. Later, with the program alreadyprinted and her name nowhere on it, Bivens was invited to speak at the Hall ofFame ceremony, during which Vijay Singh, Henry Picard and several other golfingluminaries were inducted. She gave a snappy seven-minute speech on ... thestate of the LPGA. It felt stuck on.

All through theyear Golf World's Sirak often criticized Bivens's various moves in a series ofdetailed, newsy stories--stories for which Bivens would sometimes not makeherself available. Extrapolating from Sirak's reporting, various insidersstarted to wonder whether Bivens would be fired before her first year was up.When Sorenstam, a three-time winner of the ShopRite, questioned the directionthe tour was taking in one story, people paid particular attention. It lookedas if a power play was unfolding.

Almost asquickly, it was over. "The Harrisons overplayed their hand," says JoeLogan, the golf writer at The Philadelphia Inquirer who reported on theHarrisons' dispute with Bivens. "My theory is that they were counting on aninsurrection from the other tournament owners. But Bivens was the one leftstanding, and now she's saying, 'Anybody else want to take me on?'"

The answer: Justabout nobody else in golf does. One exception is the former communicationsmanager for the former ShopRite Classic, Roger Gottlieb. "Carolyn Bivenshas created a culture of fear that has permeated the tour office, the TOA andwho knows where else," says Gottlieb, who worked the ShopRite tournamentfor 15 years. "She goes after anybody who might have a dissenting opinionwith a vengeance."

Most others aremute. Next year, during the first week in June, there will be a new tournamentin the ShopRite's old spot, the Ginn Tribute Hosted by Annika, which will beplayed on a development course called RiverTowne, outside Charleston, S.C. Theplayers will dig into a $2.6 million purse, or $1.1 million more than theHarrisons offered this year. There's another event on the '07 calendar calledthe Ginn Open, outside Orlando, also with a $2.6 million purse.

Bivens, 53, oncea member of the Congressional Country Club but not enough of a golfer thesedays to have her game on public display in LPGA pro-ams, took a curious routeto her job. She was an Air Force brat who protested the Vietnam War as a youngwoman and attended a small Virginia university, Radford, for two years in theearly '70s before heading off to work. (Ever since Kenesaw Mountain Landis, thefederal judge who became the first baseball commissioner, most sportscommissioners have been lawyers or had other advanced degrees.) She worked foryears at USA Today, on the ad side. She was the COO of a large media servicescompany when a headhunter approached her about the LPGA job. She took a pay cutto become LPGA commissioner.

If you spend timewith her, you realize that she's not a corporate smoothie with a gift for easybrag-about-your-club chit-chat, the lingua franca of the golf industry. Insteadshe comes off as a pragmatist in a hurry--lunch is sometimes a diet Dr Pepperand a Chick-fil-A sandwich at her desk--who believes passionately in hermandate: Get her members a health-care package; get them a real pensionprogram; get the LPGA to look, financially, more like the PGA Tour, which ownsthe Players Championship and the TPC at Sawgrass, among scores of othervaluable properties. The PGA Tour has $500 million in its pension plan. TheLPGA has $19 million.

"I didn'tthink of myself as a feminist before I had this job, but I do now," Bivenssaid last Saturday at Mar-a-Lago. The Trumps were at her table, and NatalieGulbus, working the room, looked as if she had just walked off a Victoria'sSecret shoot. "I want a 13-year-old girl to look at the LPGA and see thatthe women golfers are getting what the men are getting. That goes way beyondgolf." Pepper's worry was well-founded--there will be casualties along theway. But Bivens is not apologizing for that.

In her first yearBivens learned what a weak position the LPGA is really in. The man behind theMcDonald's LPGA Championship, Herb Lotman, moved the tournament coverage fromCBS to the Golf Channel without any approval from the LPGA because none wasneeded. The players, the senior LPGA staff and Bivens herself would have muchpreferred to see the tournament on a network, with its vastly bigger audience.Jonathon Miller, the exeutive vice president of NBC Sports, never even got achance to bid for the rights, to his frustration. Bivens knows there's one wayto make sure that doesn't happen again: You have to own your tournaments.

Any day now sheexpects to make an announcement about the 2007 season-ending ADT Championship,played at the Trump International Golf Club by day and Mar-a-Lago by night. In2007 the tournament will have the same name, the same venue and the sameformat, but it will be owned, 100%, by the Ladies Professional GolfAssociation. "It took some horse trading, but we did it," thecommissioner said.

It's one eventamong three dozen. To Bivens, it's a start.

Follow the silly season at SI.com/golf

In an e-mail, Pepper unleashed this broadside: "Iam most disappointed with the LACK OF SINCERITY AND [THE] STRONG-ARM TACTICSbeing used at this time on every level."

"I didn't think of myself as a feminist before Ihad this job," Bivens said, "BUT I DO NOW. I want a 13-year-old girl tolook at the LPGA and see that women are getting what the men aregetting."

 

 

PHOTOPhotographs by Darren CarrollALLBUSINESS
In her first year Bivens has changed the LPGA culture--and ruffledfeathers.
PHOTOSTEVE GRAYSON/WIREIMAGE.COMFACETIME
Bivens with (from left) Stephanie Louden and Cristie Kerr in Beverly Hills,Nancy Lopez and Christina Kim.
PHOTOMATT SULLIVAN/REUTERS[See CaptionAbove.] PHOTO AL MESSERSCHMIDT/WIREIMAGE.COM[See Caption Above.] PHOTOPhotographs by Darren CarrollBIGFINISH
Bivens (with Granada) also had a huge win at the ADT: Next year the event willbe 100% owned by the LPGA.
PHOTODAVID CANNON/GETTY IMAGESCASH AND CARRY
To cut down on expenses, Rosa (right) caddies for her 20-year-old daughter, andthey share a two-bedroom apartment.
PHOTOPhotographs by Darren CarrollANY WHICHWAY
Although only her final round, a four-under 68, counted, Granada also would'vewon with a 12-under 276 for four days.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)