Solheim Cup \‘numbers\’ buoy LPGA

       Just when it looked like the format for The Solheim Cup was about to undergo a radical change, the biennial event named for the founder of Phoenix-based PING got a big boost on almost every front.

       OK, so nothing much really changed in terms of the competition, as the U.S. whipped up on the European team, 16-12, for its third straight win while running its overall record to 8-3. Still the competition was much closer than the score, as the heavily favored Yankees had their hands full against the scrappy underdogs from across The Pond.
       What had to be encouraging for organizers and the Solheim family was the “other’’ numbers’’ – solid TV ratings, record crowds, hefty tournament sales and Internet hits. All  were “up’’ so significantly in an economically down year that chances are the Solheim Cup lives in its current state at least through 2011 when the matches will be played at Killeen Castle in Ireland.
      Translated: The large contingent of highly ranked Korean golfers, the LPGA’s version of the “A Team’’ (the U.S. being the “B’’ and the Euros the “C’’) won’t be added to the mix. For the record, that had been the scuttle-butt before the latest battle took place last weekend at Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove, Ill.
      Why change the format? To start with, the Europeans had four players not even in the top 125 of the world rankings. But the cold hard fact that was hardest to ignore was that 12 of the top 20 players in the world rankings were from regions not eligible for the Solheim Cup, most notably Asia and Australia. Oh, yes, and the No. 1 player in women’s golf, Mexico’s Lorena Ochoa, also was ineligible.
       But with Michelle Wie going 3-0-1 in what many called her “breakthough performance,’’ and the U.S. rallying late on the back nine of Sunday’s singles matches, the drama proved great enough to draw a record .93 rating on the Golf Channel. That tripled the ratings from the Solheim Cup of 2007 (.27) that was held in Sweden, and also surpassed the previous all-time standard set in 2005 (.62).
        Granted, that .93 rating breaks down into only 956,000 total viewers, still small by even golf standards. But remember, it’s the Golf Channel and not everyone has cable.
       The crowd count for the week also turned out to be record-smashing, as 120,100 fans showed up at a steady 30,000 fans-a-day pace. Sure, that’s about the same crowd count you would expect for an LPGA event in Phoenix, but it’s about double when compared to other LPGA tournaments that average about 60,000 fans for a week.
       That was the other upside to the Solheim Cup, in that all those fans bought a record $1 million worth of merchandise for the week, according to SportsBusiness Journal. And if all those numbers aren’t enough to sway the critics, the web traffic on drew nearly 6.5 million page views for the week, up 205 percent from the 2007 Solheim Cup.
       It just goes to show you that perhaps the Solheim Cup is more about the entertainment value and the traditional matchup – U.S. vs. Europe — than who wins or loses. In that regard, Wie, the wild-and-crazy Christina Kim and “the Brat Pack’’ – Paula Creamer, Morgan Pressel and Natalie Gulbis – proved they have a lot to bring to the table.
      Seriously, in a year that has been both dark and gloomy for the LPGA, the struggling women’s golf organization could not have received a better shot in the arm than the 11th annual Solheim Cup. It is a message we can only hope does not fall on deaf ears here in Phoenix, where the future of the LPGA is in dire straits.