Corning Classic to end after 31 years

CORNING, N.Y. — The LPGA Corning Classic, the longest-running event on the ladies tour with the same title sponsor and played at the same venue since its inception in 1979, will end in May.

Tournament president Jack Benjamin made the announcement Monday, a day after the board of directors came to the painful conclusion after discussing it for six months.

“This is a most difficult decision for all of us,” Benjamin said during a news conference at Corning Country Club, home of the tournament. “Everyone involved with the event is passionate about it and the LPGA players who have been a part of it for more than three decades.”

The tournament had an option for 2010, but Benjamin said the loss of over $500,000 in sponsorship revenue made it economically unfeasible to sustain it beyond this year in these depressed economic times. Title sponsor Corning Inc., has done restructuring since January, laying off 13 percent (3,500 workers) of its global work force and letting go 1,400 contractors.

“It was an emotional and difficult decision for our leadership,” said Kirk Gregg, executive vice president and chief administrative officer of Corning Inc. “We are proud to be the longest-running title sponsor on the LPGA. We have had an incredible run.”

The specialty glass and ceramics company, the world’s largest maker of liquid-crystal-display glass, saw its fourth-quarter profit plunge 65 percent in January. Gregg said the continuing falloff in revenue and sponsorship and the rising costs of the tournament in the future made it clear the event was no longer sustainable.

The Corning Classic, which has a purse of $1.5 million, has raised over $5 million for local charities, and Gregg said the company would help area charities transition over a two-year period.

“Just cutting it off is not our idea of a good time,” Gregg said. “They’ll be receiving something. We’ll have to figure out what that is. This is about doing the right thing on the way out.”

Corning’s demise is just another sign of the times in golf.

Earlier this year, FBR decided not to renew its contract with the PGA after 2010 for its popular tournament outside Phoenix. U.S. Bank said it was pulling out of the Milwaukee tournament after this year. Ginn Resorts ended all golf sponsorships, including the LPGA’s Ginn Open and the Champions Tour Ginn Championship.

The LPGA also lost three tournaments from its 2008 schedule before this year began.

Another contributing factor to Corning’s demise was declining attendance and a lack of volunteers. And the friendly small-town atmosphere often was not enough to attract many of the game’s top players, in part because of Corning’s spot on the schedule just ahead of the McDonald’s Championship.

“We understand the challenges of this difficult economic environment, and we respect the decision to do the right thing for Corning and the community,” LPGA deputy commissioner Libba Galloway said. “Corning has been a special stop on the tour. The community has been so welcoming to our players, our caddies, to our staff.”

Two-time Corning Classic champion Rosie Jones, a crowd favorite and the tournament’s all-time leading money winner, was slated to be at the news conference, but her flight from Atlanta was canceled. She e-mailed a message from the airport.

“This event represented an icon of the LPGA tournament model, but more importantly provided us with a flash of much-needed stability and comfort in our chaotic schedules on tour,” Jones wrote. “The feeling of coming home and being part of the Corning community gave us much more than playing in another LPGA golf tournament. It was an experience not to be outdone by any other event, regardless of its stature or the dollar amount behind its title. You made us feel special and more like your family when we were away from ours.”

Added longtime tournament media director Al Donnelly: “It’s a sad day for us. It’s going to be a melancholy tournament in four weeks.”

Leta Lindley, who beat Jeong Jang in a one-hole, sudden-death playoff a year ago for her first LPGA victory, will return to defend her Corning title in May. The tournament also has received commitments from Brittany Lincicome, winner of the Kraft Nabisco Championship, Cristie Kerr, Kristy McPherson and Natalie Gulbis.

The goal is to make the final Corning Classic something to remember.

“We don’t want to do something subpar,” tournament director Dawn Marie Castellana said. “We want to make this a celebration.”

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