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Votaw leaves women’s tour in solid shape

Doug Ferguson Associated Press

CARMEL, Ind. – Ty Votaw had an aisle seat on his way to the U.S. Women’s Open at Pumpkin Ridge two years ago. His head was buried in a pile of work during the four-hour flight, so much that he nearly missed a spectacular view out of the left side of the plane as it cruised beside the peak of Mount Hood.

“I always sit in the aisle on my way to a tournament because I have work to do,” he said that day. “I get a window seat on the way home, because that’s the time to reflect.”

There is plenty of time to reflect now.

When the last two players on the course shook hands Sunday at the Solheim Cup, that officially ended his 6 1/2 -year tenure as the LPGA Tour commissioner.

About the only thing that didn’t improve was his golf.

“I don’t think anybody is going to know, except for a few on the inside, what his passion was for this job, and how much he poured into it,” Judy Rankin said. “It’s a hard job under the best of circumstances. I don’t know where history is going to take this organization, but his years with the LPGA (are) going to mean a lot. It has been a pivotal time.”

The results are in the numbers.

There were nearly 40 tournaments when he took over, but only a dozen of them offered at least $1 million. In a smart move that was not universally popular, Votaw decided more meant less. He trimmed the fat off the schedule, leaving 31 events tournaments that have an average purse of $1.4 million.

Votaw is most proud of a summit held two years ago in Phoenix, where he unveiled a plan to help the LPGA Tour grow by putting the fans first and by making the players more appealing. Rarely has he given a speech without mentioning the five points of celebrity – performance, relevance, joy and passion, appearance and approachability.

One of his final acts brought some of the harshest criticism. Votaw proposed a radical change to the end of the season, setting up a playoff system for 32 women to qualify for the ADT Championship and paying the winner $1 million.

An Ohio lawyer, Votaw showed up at the LPGA Tour in 1991 as a general counsel to work with former commissioner Charlie Mechem, get involved in sports and see where it might take him. He wound up with the second-longest tenure of the six LPGA commissioners and more memories than he imagined.

“I think of him as one of the players – not that he’s a woman, but he was part of the gang, you know?” Annika Sorenstam said. “He could be in a coat and tie giving a speech, then sitting there in jeans and a shirt at a party with us.”

He was in jeans and a shirt at a pub in Wilmington, Del., three years ago, mingling with the players. At the table that night was Sophie Gustafson, with whom Votaw eventually became romantically involved. It might have been the toughest chapter in his career, as the LPGA board considered whether the relationship compromised his job.

The board saw no conflict.

“If they had a problem, we would have worked that out,” Votaw said. “Ultimately, they were concerned for someone to be happy, and they saw how happy I was with her.”

There were other moments with other players that he cherishes, too.

There was a roast for Votaw on a Saturday evening in Indianapolis. That morning, he was sitting below the bleachers around the ninth green when Laura Davies hit a 3-iron into 8 feet, an eagle that would allow her alternate-shot match to get within one hole. It was a tight match, full of tension.

Davies spotted him and walked over. She told him she couldn’t go to the roast if she had to play that afternoon. Otherwise, she would be there with bells on.

“I was blown away,” Votaw said. “I told her, ‘Get the hell out of here. Get back to your match.’ That’s what makes you realize this is a special place.”

Sorenstam made it that way, too.

Votaw realizes he was lucky to be commissioner when Sorenstam took the LPGA to new heights by shattering records and barriers. He lists her performance at the Colonial on the PGA Tour as one of his favorite memories.

“All the media coverage, all the conjecture of how she would do or wouldn’t do, it seemed like a convergence of a lot of issues in terms of what this could mean for the LPGA and women’s golf,” Votaw said. “It was irrelevant she missed the cut. It was irrelevant she shot 71-74. It was how she represented the LPGA.

“I would suggest since 2003 and the summit, the LPGA has been on a growth pattern,” he said. “But I think that was another afterburner.”

Sunday afternoon at Crooked Stick, he walked along the ropes with his 11-year-old son, Sam, as he watched Gustafson and Juli Inkster in the first singles match. While the Americans celebrated another home victory, Votaw disappeared into the evening with little fanfare and was headed home.

No doubt he had a window seat.

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