The 2011 LPGA season begins Thursday in Thailand. And though this year's master schedule is on the upswing, it's not without concerns. The CVS Classic is now a fond memory, the Jamie Farr Owens Corning Classic is on hiatus and the Tres Marias Championship was nixed because of the ongoing drug war in Mexico. The result is several idle weeks, plus the third of 25 stops on the calendar is the inaugural Founders Cup — a charity event sans prize money. On the plus side for Canadian fans, the CN Canadian Women's Open is scheduled to be played in Mirabel, Que., from Aug. 25-28.
Senior writer Rob Sinclair spoke to tour veteran Alena Sharp of Hamilton, who finished a respectable 57th on the money list last season, about the 2011 season:
Q: It seems so much talk about the LPGA centres on how well the tour is faring — how it's prospering or not prospering. How do you see the state of the union heading into the 2011 season?
The 2011 season is going to be a little bit tougher than the 2010 season. The economy is coming back up but we've hit bottom now in 2011 and it can only get better from here. It's going to be a tough year but there's lots of stuff that you can play in outside the LPGA to keep your game up so you are ready for the weeks that we do have in a row. That's what I plan on doing. I'm going to play some Cactus Tour events and, hopefully, some Canadian Tour events if it works into my schedule. Everybody's going through the same problem, you know. We have 20 to 25 events — a lot of them are limited field — and everybody's just got to get through it. It's going to get better next year and I think everybody's positive about that. We can't really get any worse than what we're at right now.
Q: As much as it sometimes unfair to compare tours, the PGA will have played six events by the time the LPGA has completed one. Are you satisfied with the number of events available to you?
No. I think that, you know, the men play so many events and then they have sometimes in weeks they have events offsetting the bigger events — like the Match Play or a limited-field event or a world-ranking event. It's sad that we don't even have an event. We don't start until, really, the end of March because our first two events are limited field. Obviously, we all want more tournaments to play in. I would rather have more events and play for less money. It seems all the events that we get are up over $1.5 million. We could, you know, lower our standards a little bit – obviously not to the point where it's under a million. We just want to play and it's tough this year with that. Hopefully, next year we'll have a few more new events to play or old events will come back.
Q: How worried should we be, as golf fans, that a North American-based tour is being forced to go global to fill its schedule.
Golf is more global. Asia's really picking up steam. I mean, China's now getting into golf. All the sponsors that we're getting are coming from Asia. I don't mind going over there but it's a limited field event so it's not fair to everybody else on tour. It's too bad we couldn't have those sponsors sponsoring events here in the US. I mean, they're still getting exposure, it's just they're not playing in the country that they're from. I don't mind it because I love to travel but again, it's not fair for everybody. They're making the tour out to be the Top 60. You know, the Top 60 can prosper, the rest of us can't and I don't think that's fair.
Q: I read that nearly 80 per cent of LPGA players are from countries outside the U.S. And right now, seven of the Top 10 players in the rankings are Asian. How important is it for the LPGA to promote its foreign stars? Or better yet, can it and still hope to gain the exposure it needs in the U.S.?
It's tough. It's doesn't matter who the player is, we still need to promote them and have our sponsors and our fans know them better no matter who they are. Maybe if the sponsors knew them a little bit better and knew what they were about — even though maybe they don't speak English to the best that they should be because they're over here in the United States playing golf. There's a lot to everybody. It's not just about speaking the language. We can do a better job with our emotions out there on the golf course. We need to do that better than the men because the men have so many events. We need to appeal to our sponsors and make them happy when we play in pro-ams and hopefully attract new companies through our pro-ams because that's what really helps the LPGA move along and that's what gives us new sponsors. We put on a great pro-am for our sponsors and for their clients and that's a huge thing for us. Some of our events are three days and we have a two-day pro-am — that's how big it is for us.
Q: I'm interested in your thoughts on the Founders Cup, and whether you think there's room for charity events when you’re trying to earn a paycheque from week to week?
It's a tough one. It's unfortunate that we don't get to play for a purse but we are playing for a charity and we can pick our own charity, so that's a plus to that. If you win the event, you get $200,000 to the charity of your choice. That gives you a little something more to play for. It's really three days out of 365 that we're playing for free. I mean, obviously the men would never do it but we have to do this. Maybe it'll turn into an event next year and we'll be playing for an actual purse instead of a mock purse.
Q: What impresses you most about the expanding Canadian contingent on tour?
The Canadian girls are becoming more competitive and a lot stronger. Obviously, we have more girls on tour this coming year than we've had in the last four or five years and that's great to see. I think that the RCGA and Golf Canada are doing a great job in promoting and getting our players to play, not only in Canada but in the U.S. and worldwide, and they’re getting that experience as well as playing college golf and I think it's only going to get stronger. I know that there's other girls that are younger that are going to turn pro and excel when they get out here on tour.
Q: What can we expect of you on the course this season?
For me, I've been working hard on my game and I feel I'm ready to do something great this year. I feel confident. In the past years, I've struggled with my putting and I don’t feel like I'm doing that anymore. I have a consistent routine for all my shots and I've worked hard this off-season to get ready for this first event. It's going to be good. I've never been this confident going into a season, so I just need to get out there and get under the gun and play well with the competition and do well on the weekend.