August 7, 2012
Monday's media gabfest for the LPGA Kingsmill Championship was impeccably timed. The symmetry was accidental, but ideal nonetheless.
Here's why: This week the LPGA Tour returns to Toledo for the Jamie Farr Classic, for 26 years among the circuit's most popular events. Farr's tournament took a hiatus in 2011 due to sponsorship issues and the city hosting the U.S. Senior Open.
Similarly, the Kingsmill Championship is a revival of an event women's professional golf embraced from 2003-09 and heralded as a "fifth major." But such praise meant little to the Belgian firm, InBev, that took over title sponsorAnheuser-Buschand terminated support.
Enter Colorado-based Xanterra Parks and Resorts, which purchased Kingsmill, a gated community that's hosted 22 men's and seven women's professional tournaments, from InBev and reconnected with the LPGA.
The tour returns to Pete Dye's River Course on Sept. 6-9.
"It's a very fair course, and it's a great layout," said LPGA veteran Brittany Lang, Monday's headliner. "It's very much like a major-style course because it's always in perfect shape."
But the par-71 course will be different from what Lang and her colleagues encountered during annual May stops here.
As Wayne Nooe, Kingsmill's director of golf, explained, the rough in the spring is a more forgiving rye grass. The rough in the fall is a thicker, more wiry Bermuda.
"The Bermuda rough kind of sucks the golf ball in," Nooe said. "It plops to the bottom."
That likely translates to higher scores, at least than in 2008 and '09, when winners Annika Sorenstam (19-under-par) and Cristie Kerr (16-under) tore up the joint.
The temporary date change — the tournament is ticketed for May in 2013 and beyond, if Xanterra extends its two-year contract with the LPGA — also places Kingsmill one week prior to the season's final major, the British Open.
That proximity will cost the tournament at least one marquee name: 2007 champion Suzann Pettersen. The world's sixth-ranked player, Pettersen had previously scheduled a charity event in her native Norway that conflicts with Kingsmill's hastily arranged date.
But Nooe and Mike Scanlan, the LPGA's media director, expect a first-class field. Early commitments include world No. 2 Stacy Lewis, 2004 champion and Hall of Famer Se Ri Pak, Paula Creamer, Michelle Wie and Kerr.
Indeed, a tour clamoring for more domestic events isn't about to saddle an old friend with an uninspiring field. Moreover, the LPGA has arranged a charter flight from Washington Dulles to England hours after Sunday's final round at Kingsmill for any player flush enough to afford the tab.
Nooe said the biggest challenge was "operationally. In January, there was no staff, no website, no warehouse, no supplies, no offices. We pretty much started at scratch. Thank goodness we had experience. …
"I think the whole community is excited. There's a lot going on in Virginia that week."
That Saturday's sports calendar includes college football — Penn State at Virginia, Old Dominion at Hampton, and Lafayette at William and Mary are the area highlights — plus NASCAR's Cup crew at Richmond International Raceway.
With Golf Channel coverage dictating a mid-afternoon conclusion to Saturday's third round, Nooe earnestly suggested that anyone interested in attending the golf tournament and the prime-time race at RIR could do so.
Unless there's a silent LPGA/NASCAR crossover demographic, let's figure on Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart having minimal affect on Yani Tseng and Natalie Gulbis.
Nooe has assembled more than 1,300 volunteers, about 100 above his goal, for tournament week. His and Xanterra's most pressing concern afterward will be finding a title sponsor that can increase the event's purse.
Prize money for the 2009 LPGA tournament at Kingsmill was $2.2 million, among the tour's highest. This year's is $1.3 million, a 41-percent decline and below the tour's $1.68 million average.
But for now, dollar signs are secondary. Players are ecstatic just to reunite with a venue that offers royal treatment, countless family attractions and a well-manicured course.
Lang has added motivation. The seventh-year pro was born and raised about an hour from Williamsburg, in Midlothian, and each year here she meets up with a hometown crew of about 30.
This year, she'll do so as an LPGA champion. In late June, Lang won for the first time on tour, besting Inbee Park, Chella Choi and Hee Kyung Seo in a three-hole, sudden-death playoff at the Manulife Financial Classic in Ontario, Canada.
"I still can't believe it's happened," Lang said. "It's different knowing what you're doing is finally paying off."
Kingsmill now hopes its efforts pay off with a long-term LPGA Tour event.
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