SPORTS

A title worth fighting for

LPGA officials fear that tobacco legislation could kill the Classic

JAMES DEACON August 4 1997
SPORTS

A title worth fighting for

LPGA officials fear that tobacco legislation could kill the Classic

JAMES DEACON August 4 1997

A title worth fighting for

SPORTS

LPGA officials fear that tobacco legislation could kill the Classic

When a search committee went looking for a new commissioner for the Ladies Professional Golf Association two years ago, it came back with Jim Ritts. The affable 43-year-old from Dallas is perhaps not the ideal gender, but since he took on the job last year, the once-struggling organization has soared ahead like a well-struck tee shot.

He has raised its profile (37 tournaments will be on cable or network TV in 1998, compared with 25 in 1995) and found sponsors for four new tournaments to fill out the LPGA schedule (the Tour now has 43 stops offering a total purse of $42 million—up 19 per cent over 1996). In golf terms, Ritts has been hitting nothing but fairways and greens, except in Canada, where he has been unable to keep the $1.65-million du Maurier Classic—formally designated as one of the LPGA’s four “major” championships and Canada’s only LPGA event—out of the rough. In an interview last week, Ritts stated bluntly that because of new Canadian legislation limiting sponsorships by tobacco companies, the 27-year-old Classic will likely fold after 1998. “Without changes to the legislation,” Ritts said, “I think it is highly unlikely that we can maintain a major championship in Canada.”

This was supposed to be a goodnews year for the Classic. For the first time ever, the tournament is being played at storied Glen Abbey Golf Club, the suburban Toronto site of the men’s Bell Canadian Open. LPGA advocates, who contend their sport deserves the same attention paid to the men’s game, see this year’s Classic as an opportunity for Canada’s biggest media horde to witness the country’s top players—Gail Graham, Dawn Coe-Jones and Lorie Kane—take on the world’s best, including Annika Sorenstam of Sweden, Laura Davies of England, Karrie Webb of Australia and Michelle McGann of the United States. But the cloudy future of the event took much of the pre-tournament focus off the golf.

Anti-tobacco lobbyists argue that the sponsors are simply blowing blue smoke. They say other firms will pick up the slack

if tobacco companies can’t live with the new law, which will take effect in October, 1998, and severely restricts the use of their names in advertising. But golf officials say all major sports events are bidding for support from the few companies with deep enough

pockets. The Royal Canadian Golf Association spent two years seeking a title sponsor for its Senior PGA Tour event, and nearly lost the tournament before AT&T Canada signed on last June. Ritts says that so far, not one Canadian firm has offered to underwrite the Classic, whereas sponsors of several top U.S. and British tournaments are already vying to have their events designated

as the Tour’s fourth major should the Classic fold. “The replacement of the Classic, while sad, will not be difficult,” Ritts said. “It is one of the most valuable dates on our tournament schedule.”

For Canada’s female pros, the loss of du Maurier’s support would be doubly painful. Not only would it claim their national championship, but the company would also stop funding the country’s only minor professional golf tour for women. ‘Without the du Maurier Series, we’d have nowhere else to play in Canada—period,” says Linda McFadden-Shephard, a club pro from Carrying Place, Ont., who qualified for the Classic by winning one of the five Series events. “And it’s expensive to play the mini-tours in the United States.”

On the course, the Classic’s picture is considerably brighter. The players say it is one of the bestorganized stops on the Tour. As well, it has all the stars: Sorenstam, so soft-spoken yet so steely under pressure; Webb, who as a rookie last year became the first woman ever to win more than $1 million (U.S.) in one LPGA season; Graham, winner of the Australian Ladies Masters in March; and the other Canadians, who all want to do what no one has done since Jocelyn Bourassa in 1971—win their home championship. Moreover, Glen Abbey, which was designed to provide good views for fans, is also a formidable challenge for the players. “Some of the players were worried about the inevitable com! parisons with the men,” Vancouo ver’s Chris Greatrex said after play! ing a recent practice round. “But I S think it will be great—it’s a fabu| lous golf course.”

B Canadian organizers have until ï the end of 1997 to settle the sponsorS ship issue, after which the LPGA will begin lining up alternatives. But Ritts, hoping that the Liberal government may yet agree to amendments to the legislation, has not given up on the Classic. “I hope that we have another 25 years in Canada,” he says. So, too, do the players. “This is our event, the only one we play at home,” says Graham. We don’t want to lose it.”

JAMES DEACON