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Column: Jim Ritts Looks to Take LPGA to New Heights

January 9, 1996

NEW YORK (AP) _ Talking to Jim Ritts you get the feeling that if the new LPGA commissioner really had his druthers he’d be a rock star.

Some sort of laid back rock, like maybe the Grateful Dead. Or when you hear that voice with a tinge of Texas in it you think of maybe some Southern rock like the Allman Brothers or, even closer to his home, country-rock like Willie Nelson or Waylon Jennings.

Ritts drips with energy, enthusiasm and intelligence, with a pizzazz that makes you listen hard to what he is saying, sort of the way a Bob Dylan lyric makes you wonder what is coming next.

``I love music,″ Ritts said in an interview as he took over on Jan. 1 from Charlie Mechem, the 65-year-old outgoing commissioner. ``I love it’s excitement and I feel the same way about the LPGA.″

Listening to Ritts you get the feeling that what is going to come next is something good for the LPGA.

The women’s tour could very well have found the person who can make people sit up and take notice of women’s golf and carry the LPGA into the next century on a wave of growth like the PGA Tour experienced over the last decade.

Ritts, 42, represents a new generation and perhaps new horizons for the LPGA. Clearly, Ritts took the job because he sees the potential for great things.

``At my age, I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t really believe there was an opportunity for growth,″ Ritts said.

The Dallas native, who has a business degree from the University of Texas and a masters in journalism from Northwestern, was president of network affairs for Channel One Communications, an education-oriented television channel. He knows business and he knows how to communicate. The LPGA can use both.

``I think there are smoke signals that are emerging that golf is now the hip sport for this and the next decade and that the women’s side of the game is the growth side of the game,″ Ritts said. ``The LPGA is positioned perfectly.″

His first event will be this week’s Chrysler-Plymouth Tournament of Champions in Orlando, Fla., a $725,000 event limited to last year’s winners on the tour.

Then there are only three tournaments in the next 10 weeks.

``Filling all of the available tour dates and increasing the average tournament purse size are immediate goals,″ Ritts said.

So is getting more of the LPGA on television.

``We need more title sponsors whose agendas are to have national exposure,″ Ritts said. ``And for those sponsors who want national exposure we can offer an established sport with live competition, not simply made-for-TV events.″

His biggest surprise, Ritts said, has been the fan base.

``You have people that are in some cases like Dead Heads,″ he said about the fanatics who followed the Grateful Dead rock band. ``They will travel to two or three different stops. Our sphere of influence is enormous. The task becomes to expand that sphere of influence. We make fans for life.″

Ritts has some strong talent to build on.

Pat Bradley, Patty Sheehan and Betsy King all won last year and Annika Sorenstam won six times and led both the American and European tours in money winning.

``We have the kind of stars who can attract attention,″ Ritts said.

Ritts is also aware of the other ways of building a base of fan support, mentioning the Gillette-LPGA golf clinics for executive women and the LPGA’s urban youth programs.

``We are active in 51 U.S. cities,″ he said, ``and it is projected that we will be in over 100 U.S. cities alone by the end of the decade.″

Ritts will have to face the Ben Wright situation. The CBS golf announcer is accused of saying that some sponsors have shied away away the LPGA because of lesbian golfers and reportedly made comments about women’s bodies limiting their golfing abilities.

Wright said he was misquoted but then made matters worse by making personal attacks on the reporter. Indications are that Wright will be punished by CBS in some manner, possibly a suspension, and that he will be taken off LPGA events.

Ritts, who has observed the situation as commissioner in waiting for more than six months, is following Mechem’s position for now.

``We will react to CBS when they say what they are going to do about it,″ he said.

But you get the feeling that Jim Ritts might just be willing to take on issues like this a little more directly when it’s his call.

As that old country rocker Billy Joe Shaver sings, Ritts seems like he is willing to ``pick up the tempo and take it on home.″

And that could be a beat the LPGA can dance to.

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