Women's tour losing four events, but adding new tourney in Thailand

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The LPGA Tour has become the latest pro sports organization to feel the crunch of the global economic downturn.

Even while insisting next year will be "solidly profitable," the LPGA Tour announced Wednesday that it will offer three fewer tournaments in 2009 than this year, all because of sponsorship loss. Prize money also will dip by about $5 million.

SemGroup, which sponsored one tournament this year, entered bankruptcy this summer, and some other sponsors chose to spend elsewhere.

"It's no secret that the road ahead, particularly 2009, is going to test our mettle," LPGA commissioner Carolyn Bivens said.

She added that the LPGA Tour is confronting challenges facing not only "other sports and entertainment organizations, but by every business enterprise of any kind in all corners around the world."

In recent weeks, the NBA has announced layoffs and the closing of its Los Angeles office, several NASCAR teams have laid off staff to cut costs, and many other sports organizations have looked into belt-tightening. Golf relies heavily on sponsor dollars and clearly isn't immune to the economic crisis, but Bivens predicted the LPGA Tour would make money in 2009.

"It's a scary time for everybody," said 2007 U.S. Women's Open champion Cristie Kerr, who has not lost any of her personal endorsement deals. "My whole outlook on that is you've just got to be able to ride the waves."

The 2009 schedule released Wednesday has 31 events -- 20 in the United States and 11 internationally -- not including the Solheim Cup. Among the tournaments off the future schedule is this week's ADT Championship, which has a $1 million first-place prize and closes the 2008 schedule.

"All I do is give them the best golf course in Florida," said real estate and business mogul Donald Trump, whose Trump International course hosts this week's ADT. "It is sad, because this is one of the great tournaments. The women consider it, after the U.S. Open, to be their biggest tournament."

Purses for next year will be about $55 million, about $5.25 million down from 2008. The tour announced $53.4 million in purses Wednesday; the Ginn Open in Reunion, Fla., which had a $2.6 million prize pool this year, has not yet determined what it will pay out in 2009.

"The state of the global economy and the economic crisis we're all facing has resulted in a slightly different tournament landscape," Bivens said. "It's not something that comes as a surprise."

Besides the ADT, other events not continuing over sponsorship issues include the Fields Open in Hawaii and Ginn Tribute in South Carolina, which announced its shutdown in August.

An event in Thailand running from Feb. 26 to March 1 is being added, part of what amounts to two international swings toward the beginning and end of the yearlong schedule.

The Safeway International, which has been held in Arizona, also is gone over a sponsorship issue and will be replaced by the LPGA International, expected to be held somewhere in the Phoenix area.

Also missing from the new schedule are the after-season events, such as the Lexus Cup and Wendy's 3-Tour Challenge. Bivens said those unofficial-money events will continue being discussed "in the coming months."

Next year will be one of transition for the LPGA, which is about to lose its biggest draw in Annika Sorenstam, the 72-time winner who is "stepping away" from the game to pursue family and business interests after this week's ADT Championship.

"I don't think I could have timed it any worse," said Sorenstam, who has seen the markets and her portfolio shrink since her decision to retire six months ago.

The LPGA Tour's existing television deals expire after 2009, making the task of filling schedules for 2010 and beyond even more daunting.

"I wish this economic downturn had waited one more year," Bivens said. "I wish we had one more year. But I'm grateful we had the past three."

The average per-tournament purse of about $1.77 million remains largely unchanged.

"The LPGA Tour is definitely in a tough spot right now in terms of sponsors," said Morgan Pressel, a two-time LPGA winner. "But I don't think it's just the LPGA Tour. I think the PGA Tour is going to see some of it as well with all the financial companies that they're associated with. ... It's just a tough time right now."

Next year's LPGA Tour schedule begins in Hawaii, then heads to Thailand, Singapore and Mexico. The tour does not return to the U.S. until the Phoenix event March 26-29, details of which have yet to be released.

Some events shifted slots from the 2008 schedule, others changed sponsors and details are still being finalized about the Samsung World Championship, which was in Half Moon Bay, Calif., this year.

One quirk to the 2009 schedule: The U.S. Women's Open starts July 9, followed by the Evian Masters, the British Open and the Solheim Cup. So it's possible that a player who isn't qualified for those events wouldn't play between the Jamie Farr Owens Corning Classic (which ends July 5) and the Safeway Classic (which starts Aug. 28).

"Given what could have been the potential negative economic impact on our schedule, we view this as a barometer of stability, appeal and value for our players and our property," Bivens said.