Culbreath: The fight for the Classic … and the AssociationWritten by Matt 'Shaggy' Culbreath | | email@example.com
It’s always a good time when the LPGA pulls into Northwest Ohio to spend its week at Highland Meadows. Last year was a great one: Beatriz Recari getting the win over Paula Creamer on a tap-in birdie putt on the 18th hole — the kind of finish an organizer can only dream of.
Yeah, it was a little weird last year to see the tournament without Jamie Farr’s name on it, front and center. But Marathon has stepped up admirably in the role as title sponsor, and the tournament’s purse has grown to $1.4 million this year — exactly where it left off in 2009. People forget we almost lost the tournament, and that a meeting of the association’s top golfers not only saved the Classic, but might have saved the LPGA as a whole.
The Thursday of the weekend of the Classic, news broke that a tour event was being canceled due to a corporate sponsor pulling out. It wasn’t the first, and it wouldn’t be the last: that season saw a total of 24 tour events, the lowest in five years, and the threat of losing more events loomed on the horizon. Then-LPGA Commissioner Carolyn Bivens was known to drive a hard bargain. Not content with being a second-tier product, she pushed hard for a new TV deal, bigger purses and more sponsorship money. On some fronts, the tactic worked: the LPGA remains on Golf Channel to this day. But when it came to the money, it backfired: her hard-line demands that sponsors put up more dollars in the midst of the Great Recession meant many companies just pulled up stakes. As of that Thursday in Toledo, there were only 14 events booked the following year, with big-time stops on the tour in jeopardy of collapsing — Highland Meadows included.
So some of the league’s top golfers gathered at Mancy’s for an airing of grievances. At the end of that meeting, they had come to a conclusion: the commish had to go. And so they wrote a letter to the league to explain their fears, in the hope that their lost confidence would be enough to force the LPGA’s hand. They were successful: Bivens resigned that year, and soon after, the tournament at Highland Meadows announced its return for 2010, albeit with a smaller purse.
It still took a while for the number of events on the tour to rebound: 24 tour stops were scheduled in 2010, and 23 in 2011 (the year that the LPGA skipped Toledo to make way for the U.S. Senior Open). In the middle of that recession, however, to have that many seemed to be a blessing. The dates opened back up in 2012 with 27 stops on the tour, and 29 last season, including the newly named Marathon Classic.
As the golfers get ready to fight it out on the links this coming weekend, take time to remember that just five years ago, they fought together to keep their sport alive. And they did it in our backyard.
Matt ‘Shaggy’ Culbreath is sports director for NewsRadio 1370 WSPD.