Players share strong opinions on future of Kraft

A view of the 18th green Tuesday during a practice round for the Kraft Nabisco Championship at the Dinah Shore Tournament Course at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, Calif.

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. – The scene at Wally’s Desert Turtle on Monday said it all. Twenty-six of the 32 past champions of the Kraft Nabisco Championship and two LPGA founders gathered at a swanky desert spot to celebrate tradition. It was both sentimental and inspiring.

No other tournament on the LPGA schedule could have such a night.

Former LPGA commissioner Charlie Mechem and Amy Alcott gave heartfelt tributes to Dinah Shore. The legendary entertainer and LPGA hero died 20 years ago. Those who never met Shore left Wally’s wishing they had.

Morgan Pressel toasted Solheim captain Juli Inkster, who choked back tears. The room raised a glass to women who built the tour and those still at the peak of their careers.

The Kraft Nabisco Championship faces a major turning point after the last putt drops on Sunday, and marquee players have strong opinions about what comes next.

“When I think of a major, I think of this event,” said 2011 champion Stacy Lewis. “We can’t leave here. This is what our tour is about.”

Mission Hills has hosted an LPGA tournament since 1972. The Nabisco Dinah Shore became a major in 1983. Among major-championship sites, only Augusta National has hosted a tournament for more consecutive years than the Dinah Shore Course.

“It definitely needs to stay here,” Karrie Webb said. “There's too much history and too much tradition here. If the LPGA lacks anything, in any other events, it's that.”

Alcott first jumped into the water on 18 in 1988. Since then, 22 women have taken a leap. At the Champions Dinner, Alcott talked about how badly Shore, an entertainer who died in 1994, wanted her to win for a third time so that she could take the plunge with her.

Alcott took a seven-stroke lead into the 72nd hole and saw Dinah – known for her white bell-bottoms and crisp red blazer – standing behind the 18th green wearing black pants. Someone else held a robe.

Alcott, who believes deeply in the spiritual nature of the game, felt she was destined to win that week.

Last Friday, Pat Bradley pulled up to the Mission Hills clubhouse to valet her car and ran into an acquaintance prepping to play the Dinah Shore Course for the first time. Bradley promptly launched into stories about Judy Rankin and the palm trees on No. 6, and Laura Davies cutting the corner on the par-5 ninth (before Mission Hills added all those trees). This is a major-championship course from start to finish, Bradley said.

She could tell stories about the place for days.

On Tuesday afternoon, Nancy Lopez walked onto the first tee for her 12:33 p.m. tee time in the Champions Pro-Am. She saw former rival Betsy King sitting in the starter’s tent. King recently underwent knee surgery and couldn’t participate.

“I remember being pretty nervous teeing off here,” King said to Lopez.

Mission Hills is a place where the past meets the present. There aren’t many opportunities for history lessons on this tour. Lewis, for one, soaks up as much as she can.

“I love being around the older players,” she said, “just hearing their stories and their energy. It’s just great to be around.”

As LPGA commissioner Mike Whan shops for a new sponsor, Webb is one of many who would like to see the name Dinah Shore return to the event’s title.

“I just feel like to keep the identity of this event,” Webb said, “when people tune in to watch, they're going to know, that's the Dinah Shore, the LPGA's first major of the year.”

Whoever takes over the purse strings in the next year should appreciate that the beauty of this event is its past. If the year’s first major moves to another location and takes on a new name, it loses everything.

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