For the third consecutive year, we'll take this time to look back at the good, bad and the ugly of the LPGA Tour's season. And, just as last year, there's much more good than either bad or ugly.
1. Youth movement: Among the 31 events on the 2015 LPGA schedule, 11 were won by a player under the age of 21 at the time of her victory and nearly half (15) were won by players under 23.
2. Balance: Cristie Kerr won twice this year, at the KIA Classic while still a 37-year-old and the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship as a 38-year-old, crossing the $17 million mark in career earnings in the process.
3. Momentum and the 2016 schedule: Commissioner Mike Whan now has what he considers the perfect number of official events on the LPGA schedule: 33. That has increased by a whopping 10 events in five years, and total purse money has been upped by more than $20 million to a record $63.1 million in a time that many would argue the Great Recession is still not over.
North American events have increased from 15 just five years ago to what will be 23 in 2016, including a new event in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and another new tournament beginning in 2017 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Total televised hours have nearly doubled in that same five-year span, while network weekend coverage has tripled from two to six events.
4. Drama: The formula and format of the Race to the CME Globe is absolutely top notch with the season finale not only contested over a quality golf course at Tiburon GC in Naples, Florida, but with a points reset that rewards both season-long consistency and playing a full schedule.
The format infuses just enough drama for players to endure to finish out the season in top form, as witnessed by this weekend's event. Lydia Ko, Inbee Park and Stacy Lewis each could have won the $1 million bonus with a win at Tiburon, but because none of them won the actual golf tournament, it brought a hard-charging Lexi Thompson into the bonus mix.
During the final round, Ko, Park and Thompson were each, at various points, projected to take home the seven-figure haul. The two biggest LPGA awards, the Rolex Player of the Year and Vare Trophy (for lowest scoring average), were also undecided until the final hole of the year with Ko taking home the first award and Park winning the second, thus giving her the final point she needed to qualify for the LPGA Hall of Fame after she completes her 10th year of membership in 2016.
1. Momentum and the schedule. No, this isn't a typo or a reprint, but the compression of the LPGA schedule due to the Olympics has a major downside. When the International Crown (an event that recently lost its site in the Chicago suburbs and has not yet found a new home) is completed on July 24, the LPGA will not play another tournament in the United States until the second week in November for its season finale. That is an awfully long time to maintain the momentum established in the first seven months of the year despite the eyeballs of the Olympics and the two majors that will have yet to be played in 2016.
2. American performance in 2015. As global as the LPGA is, it still greatly helps to have American golfers playing well and winning on a consistent basis. With just seven victories by Americans this year (and shockingly none by Stacy Lewis despite earning nearly $2 million in prize money), the tour isn't able to maximize its domestic impact. Michelle Wie struggled with injury and illness all year, falling from sixth in the Rolex World Rankings a year ago to 25th now. She is the one American player who legitimately moves the needle and is really needed in the winner's circle for the LPGA to make its brand even bigger.
3. Attendance at the KPMG Women's PGA Championship. While Westchester CC outside New York City was a phenomenal choice of venue for its test of golf with its proximity to a major hub of international business and the successful inaugural KPMG Women's Leadership Summit, just 17,500 people in attendance for the week was a major disappointment. The upside is the 2016 championship will be held at well-respected Sahalee in suburban Seattle, a market that was a huge win for the 18 playings of the Safeco Classic, ending in 1999. The fans there not only love their golf, but they are among the most appreciative I have ever played with before.
The Ugly (and I really feel passionately about this.)
1. The 72-hole, stroke-play format for the Olympics. I completely understand the IOC has given only a two-time guarantee for golf (Rio in 2016 and Tokyo in 2020), and that an assessment will take place after next summer's contest to determine if the sport remains in the games past that, but 72 holes of stroke-play is what we as viewers see almost every week.
Major champion Adam Scott is so put off with the business-as-usual format that he has said he will consider not playing for his home country of Australia. I applaud him for his stance and opinion. The Olympics are special and should be rife with national spirit. The only thing the format offers at this moment as it pertains to nationalism is how the players are chosen and how they will enter and exit the opening and closing ceremonies.
2. The concession. There was a lot of heartburn and hurt over the issues surrounding the fourth session four-ball match between Team USA's Alison Lee and Brittany Lincicome vs. Europe's Charley Hull and Suzann Pettersen. I've heard and read tons of the complaints about the lack of sportsmanship and how the entire situation was mishandled, but let's go back to the beginning of the entire mess. Lee committed a rules violation. She picked up a ball in play, assuming the 18-inch to 2-foot putt was "good" in a crucial, all-square match of the Solheim Cup.
That's a huge mistake, and mistakes come with consequences. At the mandatory rules meeting held before these international matches, it is always emphasized to the players to be crystal clear whether a shot is conceded. Lee did not do that. The consequence for this error was loss of hole. The rules official, Dan Maselli, handled it perfectly according to the rules of golf.
People can kick and scream all they want about Pettersen not conceding the putt, but playing by the rules is the definition of sportsmanship. Playing by the rules isn't an option or a convenience; it is how you play the game. Pettersen was vilified because of her intensity and her desire to win. That does not need an apology.
The bottom line is this: Any time rules and sportsmanship collide, someone is going to be unhappy and someone's feelings are going to be hurt. Not everyone was happy with Jack Nicklaus when he conceded a 30-inch putt to Tony Jacklin in 1969 that produced an unprecedented tie in the Ryder Cup at Birkdale.
The ugliest thing about the Solheim Cup concession is that no one really won because the facts were lost in the emotion. Not playing by the rules is not an option. Playing by the rules is the only way to play.
I do hope the Tokyo Games will use something that soccer has done so successfully: countries advancing out of group play and match play being the chosen format.
As I said at the beginning of this missive, there is a lot more good than either bad or ugly as it pertains to the LPGA, and 2016 promises to be another big year. I'll be tuning in not just as a broadcaster and former player but as a fan. I do hope you'll join me.