Does the LPGA need a fifth major championship?
The debate arises every year on the PGA Tour at The Players Championship. Now, a similar discussion will occur each year on the LPGA.
Is there a need for a fifth major championship?
No matter the answer, it would be difficult to top the pomp and circumstance called the Michelob Ultra Open. With due respect to major championships not named the U.S. Women’s Open, the Michelob, in only two years, has quickly established itself as the second-best event of the year. Last week at the plush Kingsmill Resort, 49 of the top 50 and 94 of the top 100 on the money list were in the field. The only big name absent was Laura Davies, who opted to chase an appearance fee in Japan at the Nichirei Cup.
The Michelob’s increasing purse size doesn’t hurt. In the inaugural event in 2003, won by Grace Park with a birdie on the 72nd hole, the purse was $1.6 million. This year, at $2.2 million – $330,000 went to winner Se Ri Pak – the Michelob prize money is the third-highest of the season, behind the U.S. Women’s Open ($3.1 million) and the Evian Masters ($2.5 million). The remaining three majors – the Kraft Nabisco Championship, the McDonald’s LPGA Championship and the Weetabix Women’s British Open – have $1.6 million purses.
The Michelob Ultra Open may not be called a major championship, but if it looks like a major, smells like a major, acts like a major and pays like a major . . . well, you get the point. The only thing this championship lacks is a rich history. Time can – and perhaps will – solve that problem.
“This is, for me, the course of the year,” Suzann Pettersen said. “I think this should become a major. It has all that a major needs. It has 18 great golf holes, they can set it up really, really hard with the rough and they have the whole venue.”
“In my mind it is a major championship,” said Cristie Kerr.
Can’t think of a reason why a player wouldn’t enjoy it here. Players are pampered before they set foot on the golf course. Amenities include access to the resort and spa, courtesy cars, unlimited Busch Gardens tickets for friends and family and same-day dry cleaning services. Such practices normally are reserved for the PGA Tour.
“We’re happy to do anything we can to make their week a little less stressful and a little more enjoyable,” said Wayne Nooe, Michelob tournament director.
LPGA officials fully admit that they have had the luxury of replacing the longtime PGA Tour event here at Kingsmill. Anheuser-Busch and the PGA Tour severed ties after the 2002 season, and Anheuser-Busch picked up where it left off the next year with its inaugural LPGA event.
“We didn’t change a lot,” Nooe said. “We did a lot of the same things for the women that we had for the men.”
For starters, there were volunteers aplenty, with at least eight people working each hole. Players had their last names posted behind them while on the practice range. The dressings around the skyboxes surrounding the ninth and 18th greens were done to perfection. The shrubbery and flowers were finely manicured. Flags were displayed from every country represented in the field. Every “i” was dotted and every “t” crossed.
One veteran player was overheard telling another that while playing in a Wednesday practice round she witnessed a member of the grounds crew delicately testing the consistency of the bunkers with a toothpick and a toothbrush.
“Now we know how good the men have it,” Helen Alfredsson said.
An event can have all the pleasantries in the world, but if it doesn’t have a quality course, players are not likely to return. Again, no problem here. The Pete Dye-designed River Course at Kingsmill is beautifully carved into the natural terrain and has numerous elevation changes that make walking 72 holes in less than 90 hours a challenge. But it’s worth the effort once you arrive at the final three holes, which are played along the historic James River. It is here where even the most skilled women in the world stop for a moment to catch a glimpse of the scenery.
“No. 1 is the field,” Annika Sorenstam said. “No. 2, the golf course. Three, the purse. Four, it’s just the whole atmosphere.
“It’s got that little excitement about it, the little sting that you need.”
LPGA officials have said they don’t plan to add a fifth major championship nor are they disappointed with the status of the majors as they now stand. For now, the Michelob will have to settle for the label of “Major in Waiting.”
“We want to make sure that we’re better next year than we were this year,” Nooe said. “Hopefully we were better this year than we were last year.
“If we keep doing that, who knows where we’ll be five or six years down the road?”