International Crown's format should make it a winner here, organizers say

Rich Thomas has run more than two dozen professional golf events over the past 14 years, but from its inception more than year ago the LPGA's International Crown at Caves Valley Golf Club in Owings Mills has felt different to its tournament director.

"It's not even close," Thomas said.


Thomas expects that the inaugural biennial event, which begins Thursday and features four-player teams representing eight countries, will have the feel of a U.S. Women's Open, a Solheim Cup and possibly even soccer's World Cup all rolled into four days of match-play competition.

"From a sheer energy standpoint ... enthusiasm from the countries, the response of the players, it doesn't feel like it's a regular week on tour or like some of the other events I've done," Thomas said. "Just walking onto the property and seeing the bigness of it, it is unlike anything I've ever been a part of."


It is nearly the opposite of what transpired five years ago, when both the LPGA and Champions Tour took major championships out of Baltimore after relatively short stays because of shrinking corporate dollars and dwindling interest among fans.

Steve Schoenfeld, who served as tournament director for the Constellation Energy Senior Players Championship during its three years at nearby Baltimore Country Club and has overseen the corporate sponsorship for the International Crown, agrees that "a perfect storm" could lead to the International Crown being a successful first-time event.

Schoenfeld said corporate sponsorship for this week's tournament is 40 percent higher than it was when the Senior Players Championship came to Baltimore in 2007.

"I think the fact that this tournament is coming into the Baltimore region at a time when there hasn't been [professional] golf in the Baltimore market in a few years [helps]," he said. The fact that it's an inaugural event certainly helps with curiosity in terms of getting in on the ground floor, and frankly that we're at a place like Caves Valley Golf Club ... it kind of sets us up for a very successful week."

Though not disclosing specific numbers, Thomas said "we exceeded our corporate expectations," adding that "a lot of that is a testament to Caves Valley, to the LPGA and the momentum that the tour is experiencing as a whole, and then obviously the local Baltimore community that has embraced a brand new event. It is something they can hang their hat on."

Thomas said he expects the event to raise between $7 million and $7.5 million from corporate sponsorships and ticket, merchandise and concession sales. He said it is difficult to predict how many fans will attend, though it will likely be less than the 100,000 or more who attended the 2002 U.S. Senior Open at Caves Valley.

"I think people will find appeal in the international competition," said Dennis Satyshur, Caves Valley's director of golf. "My understanding is that the women didn't want a Presidents Cup type format of the U.S against the world. The women have talked about how they looked forward to playing for their country."

A recent resurgence among the American players on the LPGA tour could provide the ultimate boost to the event.


When the tournament was first announced, Americans were lagging behind South Korea and being threatened by a couple other Asian countries. This came after U.S. players were after being dominated for more than a decade by foreign players such as Annika Sorenstam of Sweden, Lorena Ochoa of Mexico, Yani Tseng of Taiwan and Inbee Park of Korea.

The U.S. players have taken back control of the LPGA Tour in 2014, winning seven of the past nine events and the first three major championships. Television rankings are up about 20 percent, and social media exposure has grown by some 250 percent, according to Kraig Kamm, the LPGA's chief communications officer.

"When Yani Tseng was dominating the tour, we weren't exactly off the map, but clearly it's a positive for the American golfers to be playing their best golf right now," Kamm said on a trip to Baltimore last month.

Led by Stacy Lewis, the world's top-ranked player, there are four Americans in the top 10, five in the top 12 and eight in the top 16.

In comparison, South Korea has two in the top 10, three in the top 15 and five in the top 20. Of the other countries represented at Caves Valley, none have more than one player in the top 20.

Michelle Wie, currently ranked sixth in the world after her recent win at the U.S. Women's Open, won't be at Caves Valley. The four spots for each team were secured after the Kraft Nabisco in late March, and the former teenage phenom had yet to begin her recent revival that has included two wins.


Thomas said Monday that the early selection was done to help educate the players on the first-time event and that the format could be changed so that selections come after the U.S. Women's U.S. Open when the second International Crown is played at Rich Harvest Farms outside Chicago in 2016.

"There's no denyng that Michelle's a fantastic player and deserves to be on any team where she can represent her country, but it's like any team event, there's always gong to be that one person that didn't quite make it, and unfortunately it was Michelle this year," Thomas said.

Coming in the aftermath of soccer's World Cup, Thomas believes that a few of the early fourball matches — as well as Sunday's singles matches between the five teams that have accumulated the most points the first three days — could bring a sense of patriotism to Baltimore on a smaller scale from many witnessed in Brazil the past month.

"A lot of non-soccer fans were cheering on the United States, and I think we're going to get a lot of the same thing," he said. "When you combine the country element to a tournament, people are going to come out and support their country even if they've never been to a golf tournament."

LPGA veteran Kathryn Kirk, who will represent Australia this week, agrees.

"I think the whole team concept and the match concept is going to be really good for people watching at home, for people coming out to watch," she said. "The Americans love getting behind the girls at the Solheim Cup, and I think we'll see that here."


Caves Valley president Steve Fader said the atmosphere leading up to the event reminds him of when the Senior Open was played at Caves Valley.

"There's a certain amount of electricity in the air that surrounds all the preparations for the event — all the construction of the tents for media, for food service, merchandise, all the corporate hospitality tents," he said. "The place has just been abuzz with activity. It feels like something big is afoot."

This marks the first LPGA event in the Baltimore area since the LPGA Championship was played at Bulle Rock in Havre de Grace from 2005 through 2009. The Greater Baltimore Classic was played for all but one year between 1962 and 1980, first at Turf Valley in Ellicott City and then at Pine Ridge in Timonium.

The success of the International Crown could have an impact on whether professional golf returns to the area in the future. Though nothing is on the schedule, the LPGA is "continually looking" for new title sponsors to take over its events, Thomas said.

Having already hosted a Champions Tour major as well as both the NCAA men's and women's championships, Caves Valley would certainly be a potential site for another Women's Open or even a future Solheim Cup, a tournament that pits the United States against Europe.

"We're always meeting with companies all over the world trying to find markets where they want to be represented as well as where we like to play," Thomas said. "I think with the quality of golf courses in this area, I think there's probably more than one suitable venue to where we can play a tour event."