Playing to the gallery
When Dieter Esch began looking at the players on the LPGA Tour, he quickly figured out that something was missing. He sensed they always appeared out of place . . . swinging nine-irons, hitting out of bunkers, putting cross-handed on the green.
So Esch decided it would be a great idea to put the golfers in something different, something the casual public does not see them in, at least up to now.
Like bikinis. Like lingerie. Like evening gowns.
“This was perfect, to show the world there are sexy, athletic women who can play,” said Esch, who is using his company and his clout to turn seven female pro players into model citizens.
They are the Wilhelmina 7, a hand-picked group of seven LPGA pros represented by Wilhelmina Artist Management, a division of the New York modeling agency that includes such clients as singers Fergie and Ciara and actress Heather Graham.
Kim Hall was the first player recruited by Esch. The 26-year-old, a three-time All-Pacific 10 Conference player at Stanford, loved the photographs of her in a swimsuit. So did her husband, Casey.
“It was nice to feel glamorous,” said Hall, one of four in the group who is playing in the U.S. Women’s Open this week at Interlachen Country Club. “I’d rather be known for my golf, but it’s a bonus when you’re considered attractive. It’s flattering. It’s kind of nice to be one of the ‘cute’ ones.”
On the course, it has been sort of a challenge. Hall’s best result this season was a tie for 10th at the MasterCard Classic and she has missed eight cuts in 13 events, but she’s in the top 20 in driving accuracy and fully exempt this year.
However, statistics don’t tell you everything. If Hall appears totally at ease in a swimsuit, it’s because she is Red Cross certified as a water safety instructor.
When she is on the road, Hall said Casey likes to look at her pictures on the Internet, and has found it best to be talking on the phone with her at the same time.
“He has a whole new perspective of his wife,” Esch said.
The game plan for the Wilhelmina 7 is not complicated.
The agency will seek sponsorship and endorsement deals for the women as a group and as individuals.
Wilhelmina has launched a campaign to get them work, and, well, exposure.
Clients interested in one of the group or all of them may make up their mind as they thumb through a bound booklet of color photographs of the players, posing in bikinis, summer dresses, and more slinky dresses.
If it’s not just a good read, Esch says he thinks it’s certainly worth at least a look, or several.
There is a basic need being met here, he said.
“There was simply not enough pizazz on the LPGA Tour,” he said. “The players had no representation to speak of, no advertisements to speak of. It’s a crime, so Wilhelmina is taking it upon itself to change that.”
Endorsement income for female golfers is far from great, especially when compared to their male counterparts, although there are exceptions. Michelle Wie’s estimated $12 million is the highest among LPGA Tour players, according to Forbes’ Celebrity 100 list, while No. 1-ranked Lorena Ochoa earns an estimated $6 million from her endorsements.
Those totals pale in comparison to the estimated $90 million to $105 million that Tiger Woods annually brings in from his endorsement deals.
Esch noted that the response has been positive. “Have you ever put water in the desert?” he said.
The decision by the Wilhelmina 7 hasn’t elicited much reaction among players on the tour, though several supported it.
“Sounds like a lot of fun to me,” said four-time major winner Meg Mallon. “I’m for anything that extends the boundaries of our sport, creates additional interest and makes new fans. Once we get people interested in our sport, we keep them. I don’t know why anybody would have a problem with that.”
Hall of Fame player Amy Alcott was also enthusiastic.
“More power to them,” she said. “I’ve always thought that for young players, the key is showing your personality, style and demeanor and to embrace stardom when you have it. You’re in the entertainment business. And if this company can raise the visibility of the LPGA Tour, and to showcase areas away from the arena of golf too, then I think it’s a great thing.”
Ochoa said she was unaware of the Wilhelmina business arrangement but also said she had no problem with it.
Hall’s fellow ‘7’ compatriots who are playing the Open this week are Stacy Prammanasudh, a two-time LPGA Tour winner; Anna Grzebien, a rookie from Duke; and Minni Blomqvist of Finland.
Prammanasudh, 28, a three-time first team All-American at Tulsa, said this was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up.
“Modeling and the fashion industry, it’s pretty exciting for someone who comes from an athletic background,” she said. “We’re all athletes and we tend to think we handle ourselves pretty well on the course, now we have a chance to take our talents to a totally different level.”
The other members of the group are Sandra Gal of Germany and the University of Florida, Johanna Head of England and Mikaela Parmlid of Sweden and USC.
Along with Bob Aube, who manages the Wilhelmina 7, Esch said they did their homework to scout for the right players. They went to LPGA events at Arizona, Florida, New York and also the Nabisco Championship at Mission Hills in Rancho Mirage. The photo shoots were done in Los Angeles, Miami and New York.
“I wanted them to look attractive, I wanted them to look sexy,” Esch said. “And that category can’t only be Natalie Gulbis and Paula Creamer.
“What I hope for the Wilhelmina 7, I hope that they get exposure beyond golf. It’s about style and fashion too. I want people to come out to the golf course and say, ‘What are they wearing this weekend?’ ”
There are more than 1,200 models represented at Wilhelmina, which is branching out with its Artist Management arm and last month signed David Leadbetter to a deal.
Leadbetter, known for his golf academies and for his work with such pros as Trevor Immelman, Lee Westwood and Wie, said the plan is for Wilhelmina to market the Leadbetter academies and its names with an emphasis on a holistic approach to golf.
“When you think about it, golf is not just about instruction,” Leadbetter said.
And women’s golf is about a lot more than players hitting shots, he said.
“I think it’s high time they used femininity in the right way. There are a lot of pretty girls on the LPGA Tour.”
Selling players’ good looks isn’t new on the LPGA Tour. It has a long history, from Jan Stephenson reclining in a bathtub full of golf balls and the calendar highlighted by Cathy Reynolds and Muffin Spencer Devlin in the 1970s to the more recent swimsuit calendar from Gulbis and the ‘Five Points of Celebrity’ espoused by former commissioner Ty Votaw.
A spokesman for the LPGA said it would be too soon to comment on the Wilhelmina endeavor because no one has had enough time to study the deal. The Gulbis calendar was not sold at tournaments by the tour but was a best-seller anyway, and Gulbis was recognized by FHM Magazine as one of its 100 sexiest women of 2007.
At the time, Annika Sorenstam said she had no problem with Gulbis’ revealing photographs, but said it wasn’t for her.
“I don’t have the body for a calendar,” she said.
Hall said she’s excited about the possibilities the photos may create and noted that there’s a camaraderie growing inside the group of seven, maybe even a competition.
As for critics among her other peers, Hall said she couldn’t blame anyone for skepticism.
“And at the same time, some of them are probably wondering, ‘How come I’m not in that group?’ Look, we’re all women. We all get our Victoria Secret catalogs and order stuff from there,” Hall said.
“But in the end, it’s about golf. Nobody in the group wants to be [an Anna] Kournikova.
“You always put pressure on yourself to perform. We’re in the limelight, so we’re going to do that playing golf, not standing around looking glamorous.”