LPGA pushes back schedule to mid-July in hopes of safe start

The LPGA Tour bought itself an extra month to make sure it’s safe to resume playing, releasing a new schedule that could end with two of its biggest events and finish five days before Christmas.

The LPGA hopes to restart on July 15-18 at a team event in Michigan and play every week except for the week of the Masters (Nov. 12-15) and Thanksgiving until the season ends in blockbuster fashion — the U.S. Women’s Open followed by the CME Group Tour Championship, with a combined $10.5 million in prize money.

LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan said he was more interested in being safe than being first to resume.

“As long as we can pull off the schedule now we put in front of us, the season can be really busy,” he said Wednesday. “There’s still over $56 million up for grabs, and we’re going to play for almost $2.7 million every time we tee it up. … Despite an awful lot of cat herding in the last eight weeks, I feel like we’re at a place now where we can still provide opportunity.”

The mid-July start, however, means there’s nowhere to put tournaments if there’s another delay. The UL International Crown was among five tournaments cancelled for the year — the International Crown will stick to its biennial schedule and resume in 2022 — but the tour has lost only nine tournaments due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Any more delays likely would mean a hybrid season that ends in 2021.

In an unusual show of co-operation, Whan said, title sponsors who will not have tournaments this year have offered to boost prize money at tournaments still on the schedule, leading to the increase in prize money.

The LPGA Tour had planned to resume June 19-21 with the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship. That was pushed back to the end of August. The PGA of America announced Wednesday that the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship will move from the last week in June to Oct. 8-11 at Aronimink outside Philadelphia.

That means the first major would be Aug. 9-12 — the same week as the PGA Championship in San Francisco — with the Evian Championship in France, and then the Women’s British Open two weeks later.

The PGA Tour hopes to resume June 11-14 at Colonial in Fort Worth, Texas. Whan sees that as an advantage because the LPGA might be able to learn what it takes to get going again.

“I realize that maybe there was a more aggressive path that we could have taken,” he said. “But in our world, I feel like this was the right path. If it turns out that we’re a little late to the party — but being late to the party enables us to benefit from some of the learning from others — that would be even a lucky strike extra.”

Still to be determined is what the LPGA events will look like. The PGA Tour is going without spectators for at least a month. The LPGA has not decided on fans, instead having contingency plans and waiting until the tournament gets closer to decide whether that makes sense.

As for virus testing, Whan said it would be a seven-figure cost to the LPGA, though he remains optimistic that enough tests will be available by then.

“We’re not going to get back until we can create an environment that’s safe not just for players, caddies, our staff, but the cities we enter,” he said. “We want to make sure the town feels as comfortable as I do about us coming.”

Tournaments in Phoenix, Honolulu, Los Angeles and San Francisco were cancelled, returning to the schedule in 2021. The LPGA Tour previously lost four events in the Asia swing, along with one in Virginia.

The Women’s PGA Championship will have a 132-player field because of less daylight in October. Whan said some fields would be expanded during the summer, while others would shrink in the fall.

The season would end with the U.S. Women’s Open and its $5.5 million purse on Dec. 10-13 in Houston, followed by the CME Group Tour Championship and a $5 million purse — $1.5 million to the winner — on Dec. 17-20 in Naples, Florida.

Even as he tries to get through this financially staggering year, Whan said he hasn’t taken his eye off the future.

“We’re going to make some decisions that are financially negative in ’20 ,” he said. “But they’re all made to make sure that we’re super strong again come `21, ’22, ’23. The only way COVID really damages the LPGA long-term is if we allow it to by only focusing on 2020.”

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