LPGA says ‘aloha’ to Hawaii in 2010

HONOLULU – Michelle Wie’s home state, which promotes itself as a golfer’s paradise with year-round sunny weather, has bid aloha to the LPGA – for now.

The number of LPGA events have dwindled from a record three in 2008 to one this season and none scheduled for next year as corporate sponsors and golf courses try to cut marketing costs amid global economic declines. The tour is hoping a new sponsor will step up soon so Hawaii won’t be left off the 2010 schedule.

“Every sport, every corporation, every family is feeling the recession, so it’s not easy,” LPGA spokesman David Higdon said. “But we’re going to work hard and we know we have a great sport, a great circuit and a great history in Hawaii.”

The Kapalua LPGA Classic said this week that it has pulled out of its contract to host the event with four years remaining on its five-year contract. LPGA deputy commissioner Libba Galloway said the tour is “extremely disappointed” and plans to “vigorously enforce all our legal rights under the contract.”

Kapalua, owned by Maui Land & Pineapple Co., sponsored the event’s inaugural event last year, which was won by its touring pro, Morgan Pressel. Kapalua said is unable to present the tournament in October without a title sponsor.

“It’s disappointing but a reality in today’s current economic climate that title sponsorships are difficult to secure,” said Gary Planos, Kapalua Land Co. senior vice president.

Kapalua is the third event erased from this season’s LPGA calendar. The Ginn Open in Florida is dead and the Bell Micro LPGA Classic in Alabama was moved to next spring. The Corning Classic in Corning, N.Y., lost its sponsor for next year and the fates of the Jamie Farr Owens Corning Classic in Ohio and the Michelob Ultra Open in Virginia also are uncertain.

Higdon said he’s not worried about others following Kapalua’s lead because of contractual obligations.

Also gone from the islands are the SBS Open and the Fields Open, which used to open the LPGA season. Fields Corp., a Japanese gaming machine developer, didn’t renew sponsorship after last year’s event.

The SBS and the LPGA ended a long relationship in a bitter breakup to start the season.

The Korean media giant felt disrespected when the tour agreed to a lucrative, long-term deal with SBS’s much-smaller competitor, J Golf, for an exclusive TV deal in the golf-crazed Asian nation.

“They have moved Tiffany’s from 57th Street in Manhattan to Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn,” SBS president Sang Chun told a golf magazine in February.

SBS, one of South Korea’s four major networks, in turn agreed to a 10-year deal with the PGA Tour to sponsor its season opener in Kapalua, which had been previously sponsored by Mercedes-Benz. SBS also extended its exclusive agreement to show PGA Tour events in South Korea.

The LPGA says it was actively seeking to secure a new title sponsor to replace SBS and hopeful that Hawaii wouldn’t be left off the schedule next year for the first time since 2004.

Michael Story, sports manager for the Hawaii Tourism Authority, said the state realizes the importance of pro golf as a marketing tool. The state usually contributes $50,000 to each LPGA event held in the islands.

“It’s what we would consider part of our competitive set, when we talk about what Hawaii has to offer as a destination,” he said.

However, Story said he realizes there’s just not as much money to go around to host tournaments.

“I think there’s a lot of business reevaluating what they direct their money to, and that’s not something we can control,” he said.

Besides the balmy winter weather and its proximity to Asia, one key reason why the LPGA wants to be back in Hawaii so badly is the “Wie factor.”

“Why do we have three tournaments in Mexico? Players drive our business,” said Higdon, referring to the draw of top-ranked Lorena Ochoa. “If Michelle Wie took off, the business model will probably change a little bit more and we’ll be fielding more calls and options.”

Wie has played well in Hawaii, drawing huge galleries ever since she qualified for an LPGA event on the Big Island at age 12 and two years later shooting a 68 in the PGA Tour’s Sony Open to miss the cut by a stroke.

She opened her rookie campaign in February by finishing second at Turtle Bay, where she tied for second in 2005 as a 15-year-old amateur.

Higdon said the SBS in February was a huge success for the LPGA, which experienced the second-highest traffic on its Web site for a non-major event. It was topped only by the 2006 Evian Ladies Masters, where Wie finished tied for second.

“You look at how amazing Tiger Woods has been and what a draw he is. Of our players, Michelle Wie has that quality,” Higdon said. “So we hope that she can develop because she already has that strong following. If she turns into a great player, it will be amazing for the sport … and those are the kinds of things that will play in Hawaii’s favor down the road.”

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