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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, February 24, 2005

Votaw leaving LPGA with tour on upswing

By Bill Kwon

You have to wonder why Ty Votaw is retiring as commissioner of the LPGA at the end of this season:

Grace Park, in traditional Korean clothing, shows off her trophy after a victory at the CJ Nine Bridges Classic at JeJu Island, South Korea. The popularity of golf in South Korea, boosted by stars such as Park, has given the LPGA a big financial and popularity boost.

Advertiser library photo • Oct. 31, 2004

He's a commissioner who hasn't had a canceled season.

He doesn't have to worry about steroids being an issue.

His athletes are playing for a record $43.3 million in prize money this year.

The players don't go into the stands and attack fans.

"And I've never been choked by any of my athletes," Votaw said in his state of the LPGA address at the Aloha Section PGA golf conference at the Hawai'i Prince Hotel on Tuesday.

The latter was said in jest, but Votaw was earnest in his belief that the LPGA Tour will continue to grow no matter who succeeds him after he ends a seven-year stint as commissioner of the oldest women's sports organization.

And he hopes Hawai'i will play a major part in that growth.

"We are pleased to be back after three long years," Votaw said about the LPGA's return here with the SBS Open beginning today at the Turtle Bay Resort's Palmer Course.

"Whenever we leave a market place, the likelihood of returning is very slim," Votaw said. The LPGA had ended a 21-year presence in Hawai'i after the 2002 Takefuji Classic at the Waikoloa Resort on the Big Island.

"We'd like to expand by one or maybe two more weeks in Hawai'i. We think it would be good for this event, and for SBS, to have a second event in Hawai'i to make it more convenient for our players to have a two-week stint as opposed to coming out here for one week," Votaw said. "We're working on a number of different fronts to make that happen."

He is hoping that more sponsors like the Seoul Broadcasting System will step forward.

With the success of so many golfers from South Korea on the LPGA Tour — there are now 28 from that country playing full time — SBS was a natural tie-in as a sponsor.

"Korea has exploded in terms of a golfing country," Votaw said. "Certainly, the 28 players that come from there are the real reason why we have the Seoul Broadcasting System wanting to do a five-year sponsorship of this event as well as a record five-year television rights package with the LPGA."

More than 30 LPGA events, starting with the SBS Open, will be televised in South Korea.

"The success that they have had — several rookies of the year, several major championships won by Se Ri Pak — and the overall interest level in Korea for golf have resulted in us seeing an enormous interest in terms of television, sponsorships, media coverage and LPGA-licensed merchandise," Votaw said.

Having LPGA events televised in South Korea will generate even greater interest, according to Votaw.

"In 1998, the word 'Korea' was on nobody's business plans in terms of an impact on the LPGA. That impact has been substantial," Votaw said. "We are now focusing on where the next Korea is. Is it China? Is it the Philippines. Is it Taiwan? Is it Mexico with the emergence Lorena Ochoa for us? Two events will be played in Mexico this year."

The next impact could be the re-emergence of Japan, which once had the most Asian players on the LPGA scene.

Votaw pointed out the possible star potential of Ai Miyazato, a 19-year-old who won five times on the Japan LPGA Tour in her rookie year.

She and her partner, Rui Kitada, won the inaugural Women's World Cup of Golf in South Africa two weeks ago.

Both Miyazato and Tiger Woods played in tournaments in Japan during the same time. Woods won the Dunlop Phoenix Open, which drew a 2.6 television rating. The TV ratings for the JLPGA event won by Miyazato was 11.9.

"Miyazato has said she is going to try and play on the LPGA Tour in 2006," Votaw said. "If she does that, and has the kind of success all the experts are predicating for her, the Japan market place has a vast potential to come back."

Then, there is the Michelle Wie factor in the growth potential of the LPGA. And another reason why Hawai'i, besides its scenery and weather, plays an important factor in that growth.

"She is one of the great ambassadors for Hawai'i. She's 15 years old. She's a wonderful, talented young woman. She has a wonderful set of parents. Clearly, she has a very, very bright future in golf, whether it's women's golf or men's golf, if she continues to develop as a person and a player," Votaw said.

"I have probably been asked more questions in the past two years about Michelle Wie than Annika Sorenstam. It shows you that there is an enormous fascination by the media, by the public, in this young woman."

Votaw said he is excited about the new generation of players, including Paula Creamer, who is playing as a rookie this year. And Grace Park, Christie Kerr and Ochoa — all 20-something — enjoyed breakout years in 2004.

"We're primed for future growth based on the quality of the product which will appeal to men and women," Votaw said.

"That's one of the reasons I feel comfortable about leaving at the end of this year. Whoever takes my job as commissioner has an organization that has a very bright future. We have a very solid foundation for future growth because the parking lot is being filled with remarkable young women. And I certainly count Michelle Wie among that group."

Will his successor be a woman?

"I think if the right person for the job is a woman, the time is right. But I think the LPGA board is committed to find the best person for the job without being tied to gender," Votaw said.

Votaw, a boyish-looking 43-year-old, said the search process has just begun and he hopes there will be further developments in a tentative way by June or July.

"I told the board I will help in the search to whatever extent they would like me to and I will help with the transition for as long as my successor is comfortable in me doing it," he said.

Bill Kwon can be reached at bkwon@aloha.net.