Corning ends 31-year LPGA run

Corning, N.Y. — Peter and Jane Booth listened to a friend’s pitch in spring 1994. Could they help a community endeavor by playing host to a professional golfer? Just provide housing, a few meals, some directions and advice.

“I don’t play golf myself. Don’t know much about it, either,” Peter Booth said. Still, he agreed, and into his home came a tall and buoyant Swede named Helen Alfredsson.

Apparently, Alfredsson liked the digs, because she brought with her the next year Anne Marie Palli of France. A year later, Pam Wright of Scotland and Stefania Croce of Italy joined the mix. “My house,” Booth said, “had become the U.N.”

His soft laugh is matched by Alfredsson’s deep sigh. Nearly every Memorial Day week since 1994, she has been enveloped in the Booths’ hospitality, but this year’s visit was her last. The LPGA Corning Classic has ended a 31-year run.

“It’s very, very sad,” Alfredsson said. “I think it’s more sad for the people of Corning.”

There is a timelessness to a walk down Market Street in this town of 10,321 people some 90 miles south of Rochester. Barber poles on building fronts, the Palace Theater and its neon lights, newspaper racks greet you at Brown’s Cigar Store, and people enjoy an ambiance in the shadows of the Clock Tower as they sit outside for coffee and lunch near the bandstand at Centerway Square, just in front of Baron Steuben Place.

But it is at the intersection of Market and Pine streets where a landmark highlights a community pride. Once a year, a sign post transforms into a leaderboard, with the names of the top scorers after the day’s action has been completed at nearby Corning Country Club.

Sunday, May 24, represented the final addition to that leaderboard, downtown visitors told that Yani Tseng had won the tournament at 21 under.

And with that, the curtain fell on the LPGA’s longest-running tournament with a continuous sponsor.

“I guess,” Peter Booth said, “the Corning Classic got too expensive for Smalltown, U.S.A.”

• • •

Emotions flew like titanium-powered drives as Corning closed shop. Some saw it as commissioner Carolyn Bivens’ latest strike in a plan for a glitzier and richer LPGA model, one that doesn’t have room for outposts such as Corning, Youngstown, Hershey and Wilmington.

But Jack Benjamin is among those who don’t blame Bivens, at least not publicly.

“I can’t say the LPGA drove us out,” said the longtime president of the Corning Classic. “It was a combination of things.”

Most, of course, revolved around money. With Corning Inc. having announced layoffs of 3,500 employees, its stock floundering and unemployment in Steuben County at nearly 11 percent, it was not a good time for Benjamin to deliver this news to his board members: “Looking over the next four years (2010-13), our commitment was going to cost $17-18 million.”

Corning officials “indicated it was a pretty big pill to swallow,” Benjamin said. He confirmed that the LPGA had raised the tournament fee from $20,000 to $125,000, and a tournament that once cost $200,000 to run had increased to about $3.5 million.

Yes, it is a Fortune 500 company, but Corning also is hugely invested in the schools, a hospital, the arts and numerous charities, all of which take priority over a golf tournament – even one that since 1979 has been such a part of the community’s fabric.

“There’s a sentimental value to a tournament like this,” said David Higdon, the tour’s chief communication officer. He said the LPGA tried to work with tournament officials (one of the options, both sides said, was to go without TV, which would have saved $400,000), “but Corning couldn’t rationalize it.”

Bivens on May 19 met with about 40 players to address their concerns. “Everyone wants to have a tournament here, but it’s a tough economy, and companies have to do what they have to do,” Kris Tschetter, a 21-year LPGA veteran, said.

Like many of her colleagues, Tschetter played this year – her 13th at Corning – so she could bid farewell to a loyal LPGA stop. The passion for the tournament shined with the presence of Rosie Jones, a two-time winner who retired in 2006 but came last week to walk Market Street, hug volunteers and eat one more time at Aniello’s Pizzeria. Cindy Rarick tried to Monday qualify in an effort to extend her consecutive streak at Corning to 25 years. Leta Lindley, the defending champion, insisted on being on site, even though she withdrew with a back injury. Dottie Pepper was present with the Golf Channel, reminiscing about 1982 when she was a standard-bearer, one year before she competed as a player.

Then there was 57-year-old Jan Stephenson, who entered the field just as she had for the Corning’s debut in 1979.

“I always said it was one of my three favorite tournaments,” Stephenson said. “It just feels like they are family here.”

Frank Stephenson didn’t travel to a lot of his daughter’s tournaments, “but he loved Corning,” she said. “He would never have to buy a beer up here. They all knew him, and he knew them.”

For 31 years, the Corning Classic overlapped with the Memorial Day parade and dressing-up of storefront windows. Stephenson and her father got to judge the parade one year, a treat that Meg Mallon and other players were afforded.

“The people here have lived with this tournament,” Mallon said. “There’s such a sense of community here.”

But, alas, even where time seems frozen, a stark reality has filtered in. The nation’s economic woes are magnified in rural areas like Corning, where some Market Street businesses are boarded up.

Benjamin forces a smile.

“We don’t love the LPGA tour any less,” he said. “But there’s a business side to it. The revenues don’t match the expenses.”

He insisted that the finale wasn’t going to be a funeral. Rather, “we will celebrate great friends and the more than $6 million we’ve given to charity,” Benjamin said.

“How many things in life are you associated with for 31 years? We’re proud of that.”

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