Tour commissioner is able promoter, if also subject of controversy
For someone who has a top LPGA Tour player as his girlfriend, Ty Votaw sure runs into trouble on the links.
'She averts her eyes when I swing,' Votaw says of Sophie Gustafson. 'All the players do.'
If he scores under triple digits, it isn't very often.
How can the commissioner of the LPGA Tour be such an ordinary golfer? Look at Tim Finchem, the PGA Tour commissioner: Finchem carries a single-digit handicap.
No time to play, except in some pro-ams, is one explanation. 'The other excuse is, I don't have any talent,' says Votaw, 41. 'Plus, it's not an obsession with me. I don't live to play.'
Besides, the LPGA pays Votaw the big bucks Ñ well, the OK bucks, about $400,000 per year, compared with Finchem's $3 million Ñ to run the world's second-most successful women's sport (behind tennis). In his fifth year, Votaw has reached the stage where most LPGA commissioners bow out, or board members tell them to get out.
The LPGA has had six commissioners in 28 years. The PGA has had two in the same period. Votaw, who has a three-year rolling contract, says that 'as long as the board is happy with what I'm doing, one of the legacies that could perhaps be born is consistent leadership. I'd like to break the record for tenure.'
Behind 200 women is a good man, right?
'I think he's done a very good job,' says Dottie Pepper, who has seen five commissioners in her LPGA career. 'Look at the economic situation, with marketing dollars shrinking, and we've grown. If you look at the pure bones of it all, he's done yeoman's work in a difficult time.'
The largest purse in LPGA history will greet Votaw and the players July 3-6 in the U.S. Women's Open at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club.
Votaw also points to increased attendance and more TV viewers Ñ not better ratings, but viewers, mostly on ESPN and ESPN2 Ñ as indications of success.
The average purse is $1.2 million, an all-time high. Votaw, a nonpracticing attorney, joined the LPGA from a Cincinnati law firm as legal counsel in 1991. He excelled at negotiating sponsor agreements and TV rights negotiations, including the lucrative State Farm Series. Based on what he has done for his clients, Votaw was promoted from within and has done a good job of attracting money.
Still, it would be easy to look at some of the things Votaw does and question them. Last year, he presented a five-year business plan, which included the Five Points of Celebrity. He wants the Tour to appeal to the masses, rather than the select audience of women that serves as its backbone.
So, the one point that everybody focused on was the one about appearance. Many golfers took the suggestion as meaning they could sex it up: Jill McGill talked about exposing bare midriffs, Laura Diaz endorsed short skirts and said 'sex sells,' and Natalie Gulbis drew attention for her good looks.
Votaw says he wasn't asking players to spice up their image, just to be wary of their appearance and approach.
Still, the LPGA sent Gulbis, Beth Bauer and Cristie Kerr, arguably the three most attractive members of the tour, to sing the national anthem at a recent Chicago Cubs game.
Votaw says if a player struggles with one point, such as performance, she can enhance her appeal through others, such as appearance and approachability. It's cumulative to a certain extent.
'Performance has to be No. 1,' he says. 'But if she performs, and fans don't find her approachable or relevant, or she goes through the motions, grinding and not showing joy and passion, she won't be as marketable and therefore not as attractive.'
He endorses letting women wear what they want and has chided private clubs for their dress codes.
'Our players should be fashion-forward,' he says. 'Look at the shorts Nancy Lopez wore in 1978; haven't we come a little bit further from 25 years ago Ñ that if it was accepted what the patron saint of women's golf wore in 1978, shouldn't we be mindful of what our players can wear in 2003?'
Romance bothers some
Early this season, controversy swirled around Votaw's romance with Gustafson, a 29-year-old Swede. The obvious concern is Votaw's potential for conflict of interest.
'Maybe I'm old-fashioned, but this is inappropriate,' Tour pro Sherri Turner told Sports Illustrated. 'Week in and week out, people are always putting down the LPGA. Maybe Ty is happy, but we need good, positive press.'
One golfer, Betsy King, refused to comment on Votaw.
'I'll give my opinion where it matters, and I don't need to put it into the newspaper,' she said.
Complaints are off and on, Pepper says.
'A lot of girls were looking for something to gripe about,' she says. 'To a lot of people, it's a matter of huge principle.
'To me, it's not an issue. There's no way that a relationship with a player can interfere with his job. There's too many checks and balances built into the system.'
Adds Pepper: 'I would rather have somebody happy and doing well than miserable and hating life. They're extremely happy. I was friends with Ty's ex-wife, and neither one of them was happy. It was time to end it.'
Votaw, who has two children, is divorced.
'They're both lovely people, and good luck to them,' Laura Davies says of Votaw and Gustafson. 'Anybody who has a problem with it is an idiot.'
Votaw says the LPGA board and players have been supportive and the media mixed.
'Talking about hypothetical conflicts is a waste of time,' he says. 'When a conflict arises and I do the wrong thing, that's when people should have an issue. When a conflict arises and I do the right thing, there should never be a reaction.'
Sorenstam gambit worked
For all the criticism, Votaw strokes a hole-in-one sometimes. Encouraging Sorenstam to play in a PGA Tour event, and milking both her Colonial appearance and rising status, have only helped the LPGA.
'Annika creates a whole new fan base with the credibility she showed against the men,' Votaw says.
Votaw also lobbied Augusta National, home of the Masters, to admit women, siding with women's rights activist Martha Burk. That brings up the point about him being a man in a woman's business.
'The question is, who's the best person for the job?' he says.
When all is said and done, Votaw's performance will be judged on how well the Tour does. It has lost events in recent years, but Votaw brags about losing only one limited event in 2002 and picking up the Michelob Light Championship this year.
The real emphasis is continuing to tell people why they should watch women's golf, even ahead of the PGA Tour.
Why? Because the women are more like everyday players.
'That's what our fans find relevant and appealing,' Votaw says.