The Lpga Comes Blasting Down The Fairway

How new commish Jim Ritts is pumping up the women's tour

The day Jim Ritts was named commissioner of the Ladies Professional Golf Assn., a dated photo in USA Today showed him with shoulder-length hair. The ex-Whittle Communications executive was an unknown in the golf world, and the long locks shocked some tournament sponsors. They were relieved when Ritts appeared for his first press conference with a corporate coiffure. "Half the room is thrilled my hair is considerably shorter," Ritts laughed. "And half is disappointed, and that's about the level of consensus we're probably going to have on most issues."

But there is considerable agreement among players, sponsors, and golf industry executives about the dynamic round Ritts is playing for the LPGA. While ex-Commissioner Charles S. Mechem Jr. is credited with bringing stability and professionalism to the organization, Ritts, 42, is capitalizing on that legacy by broadening its reach and adding marketing pizzazz--hoping to play off the popularity of golf and the increasing recognition of women athletes.

When Ritts took office in January, he aimed for 41 events with prize money totaling $30 million by 1998. Already, three tournaments have been added this year and four to the 1997 schedule, bringing the total to 42 events. Purses will add up to $29 million--within $1 million of the goal and a year sooner than planned.

FRESH FACES. Luring sponsors, particularly those with with what Ritts calls a "national agenda," is key. Companies such as State Farm Mutual, which has held the State Farm Rail Classic in Springfield, Ill., for three years, have renewed agreements, and new sponsors have signed on. Most notable is a five-year commitment from ITT Co. for a November tour-ending championship in Las Vegas to be aired on ABC.

This year, 29 LPGA events will be televised, and Ritts wants to boost that to at least 33 by 1998, with a goal to have all events eventually on the tube. "Our ratings [on LPGA events] are getting stronger," says Jonathan D. Miller, senior vice-president at NBC Sports. "The LPGA tour is really one of the best opportunities for growth in all of golf." One potential audience booster: some of the 5.4 million women who hit the links in 1995, a 20% increase in the space of a decade. LPGA ratings still lag behind women's tennis and men's golf overall, but Miller notes that ratings for the U.S. Women's Open are holding steady in spite of an overall drop for golf--down 11% for all networks this year.

While several women were considered for commissioner, Ritts's media and marketing background won him the job. After becoming the youngest vice-president at New York ad agency Dancer Fitzgerald Sample Inc. at age 27, Ritts moved to Whittle Communications in 1984 as marketing director and co-founded its educational TV project, Channel One. A call from a headhunter and LPGA board member landed him in the race to be commissioner.

As the selection process was winding down, a firestorm of controversy arose over remarks by then-CBS women's golf commentator Ben Wright about a lesbian image hurting women's golf. While former Commissioner Mechem deflected the remarks, Ritts draws kudos from players and sponsors for his deft handling of the inevitable "anniversary" stories that appeared earlier this year. The intense coverage became "a fulcrum to examine the health of our business," he says. "Everyone put us under a real microscope, and this patient is not just surviving, this patient is extraordinarily healthy."

NO HYPE. Still, LPGA players have yet to achieve the name recognition of their counterparts in women's tennis or men's golf. One factor is that all Professional Golf Assn. events are televised, and major women's tennis events are teamed with men's. Building LPGA TV exposure will help. So will the growing use of women to promote golf equipment: Women's U.S. Open Champion Annika Sorenstam now pitches for Callaway Golf Co., and Dottie Pepper is a Titleist & Foot-Joy Worldwide spokesperson. While the LPGA will benefit from attention to top players, Ritts is wary of "manufacturing" superstars to sell the LPGA or overcommercializing the tour. "I like to experiment, and as I build a business, I like to tweak," he says. But "I'm going to have to be careful to temper my desire to experiment in dramatic ways with the measure of respect the game requires."

Not that he has much time for experiments yet. Ritts and his wife, Linda, have bought a housing plot in Daytona Beach, where the LPGA is headquartered, but ground has yet to be broken. Jim Ritts has a golf tour to build.

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