LPGA Pitches Senior Tour

Friday, June 14th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

JOHNSTON, Iowa (AP) _ Much is already in place _ the LPGA's blessing, a star-studded lineup and willing sponsors.

What the Women's Senior Golf Tour still needs are a few more tournaments. It also wouldn't hurt to have Nancy Lopez playing.

The fledgling tour has given some of the biggest names in women's golf _ LPGA Hall of Famers Kathy Whitworth, Amy Alcott, JoAnne Carner, Pat Bradley and Patty Sheehan _ a chance to keep playing.

But with only three tournaments, the tour is struggling to carve a niche in the nation's golf calendar. One tournament has been played this year. The second, the Hy-Vee Classic, is Saturday and Sunday at Hyperion Field Club outside Des Moines.

``It's a great way to perpetuate your career,'' said Sally Little, third in the year's first event, the Fidelity Investments Classic last month near Boston. ``We all still love to play. Pat Bradley made a statement in Boston, she goes, `In what other sport can you be a 50-year-old rookie?' ``

Now in its third year, the WSGT is banking on the same premise that spurred creation of the men's senior tour _ that fans would still pay to see the stars from the past.

It started with 25 golfers putting up their own money _ $5,000 apiece _ in what had the makings of a risky venture. Their dream got a boost in December when the tour entered into a licensing agreement with the LPGA, which designated the WSGT as its official senior tour.

``It has made life easier when pitching the tour,'' said Jane Blalock, the WSGT's founder. ``It gives us instant credibility and an identity.''

Golfers who are 43 and have or had an LPGA card are eligible for the senior tour. A few who play the senior events are still active on the regular tour, including Jan Stephenson and Dale Eggeling.

Eggeling finds the senior tour a refreshing break from the grind of LPGA competition.

``The difference here is that every one of us is like, we've been there, done that, we've been through the tough years when we weren't making that much money,'' Eggeling said. ``Now it's so much fun to give back to the fans, to show we really appreciate everything the public has done for us through the years and that people can still have fun playing golf.''

If that fun is to continue, the tour needs more tournaments. Little said she knows of four or five potential sponsors, but the tour can't give them dates until they are approved by the LPGA.

So far, the LPGA has wanted the senior tour to avoid weekends when the regular tour has events in the United States. The Hy-Vee Classic comes at the same time as the LPGA's Evian Masters in France. The final senior tournament, the Great Lakes Classic in Green Bay, Wis., is Aug. 7-11 _ the same time as the Women's British Open.

``I really feel for us to flourish as a tour we should be entitled to play the same weeks as the LPGA plays on a regular basis here in the U.S.,'' said Little, who thinks 12 tournaments would be ideal. ``The new sponsors want those weeks. It's during the summer, the peak time for golf. I think that is our biggest challenge right now.''

Getting Lopez on the tour also would help. One of the most popular players in LPGA history, Lopez is in her final year playing full time on the regular tour. She says she's interested in playing with the seniors.

``I think the senior tour is a great idea,'' Lopez said. ``I played in one event a couple of years ago. It was accepted very well. The crowds were big. They were out there rooting. They saw some ugly shots once in a while, me included.

``I played awful. But all the players out there were having a great time and the tournament got a great response, so it's good.''