THE Ladies Professional Golf Association is tired of its perennial role as poor stepsister to the other major spectator sports. And while it may not be realistic to expect equal billing just yet, there's clearly room for improvement - which explains the choice of marketing expert William A. Blue as the LPGA's new commissioner. It's a tough sell for a sport that has historically had problems with recognition and image, but Mr. Blue expresses confidence that he can make it happen.
``The opportunity for growth is there,'' he says. ``The key is to make sure that everybody in the organization knows what we want to accomplish, and that we're all going in the same direction at the same time.''
It won't be easy, though, as Blue is undoubtedly aware.
Women's golf just hasn't taken off over the past couple of decades the way women's tennis has. Nor is women's golf anywhere near the men's tour - or even the men's senior tour - in popularity and recognition.
The reasons aren't hard to discover: Except for the rare superstar like a Nancy Lopez, there's been a notable lack of big-name attractions. Another problem is the absence of well-known tournaments; the LPGA has never been able to put together a series of major tournaments with the same sort of tradition and public recognition as, say, the Grand Slams of tennis and men's golf.
Asked how he intends to overcome all this, Blue says:
``In one word: television.
``We need a cohesive, focused approach to TV, event by event,'' he says. ``We have to find a vehicle that can offer from six to 10 events, where we can emphasize that here are the 150 best female players in the world, and show people how good they are.''
TV, of course, means commercial sponsors - which is where Blue comes in. With his professional background in national and international marketing, he knows what corporations are looking for.
SOMETHING Blue must overcome is the belief that women don't play golf well enough to be worth watching.
``A lot of people have the perception that we're like the women who play at the country club,'' says Donna Caponi, two-time United States Women's Open champion. She joined Blue here at one of the meet-the-media interview sessions he has been holding around the country.
``We want the chance to show [viewers] how good we are, how far we hit it. We have a game that can appeal to everybody. Sixty-five percent of the golfers are men, and we swing more like the average man. But women can learn from us, too.''
A more damaging image problem is a life style issue. Rumors persist that the women's golf tour contains a much higher than average proportion of homosexuals. The controversy was raised prominently in a recent issue of Sports Illustrated magazine.
``What you're talking about is a perceived image,'' says Blue, responding to a question about the article. If there are any homosexual women pro golfers, he continued, ``I don't know who they are.'' In any case, Blue says, he didn't intend to pry into anyone's private life as long as players ``conduct themselves as professionals, enjoy the game, and entertain the public.''
Despite its problems, the LPGA has come a long way since its inception 40 years ago. And so has the game of women's golf in general.
``I remember not being allowed on my high school team, which was strictly for boys,'' says Caponi. ``When I joined the tour at the age of 19, I was green as grass. I knew how to play because I was strong and I could hit it, but I hadn't had any real experience.
``But today it's a whole different story with high school golf, junior programs, and college. A lot of universities have great courses, and Title IX [a federal mandate for equal athletic and educational opportunities for men and women] has gone a long way toward the development of young women who otherwise wouldn't have gone to college.
``So now, by the time these women get to the tour, they're ready to win. Which is a far cry from the way it was in my day.''
Blue intends to keep things moving forward, and in this connection he is especially interested in building up the LPGA in terms of teaching pros, too. ``We have probably twice as many teaching pros as touring ones,'' he says. ``It's a group that in many ways has been forgotten, but I think any of our touring pros would agree that these people constitute one of the most important marketing vehicles available.''
In concluding, Blue disagreed with those who say the LPGA is beset by more problems than it can hope to overcome:
``The only problem we have is making sure people know who we are and what we're all about,'' he says. ``This is a tour that is healthy, alive, positive, and growing. And it's going to be an increasingly significant factor not only in the game of golf, but in sports entertainment in general in the 1990s.''