Many of the best women golfers in the world are in the Baltimore area this week for the LPGA's International Crown, a first-time event that runs today through Sunday and will be broadcast to 170 countries. In terms of exposure, it rivals a major championship; in terms of interest, it rivals the Solheim Cup between the United States and Europe.
What those who plan on attending or watching on television will see, aside from the performance of 32 players representing eight countries, is Caves Valley Golf Club. The private, member-owned club, which has catered to a corporate clientele and has been played mostly by men, features a course that LPGA players this week have characterized as challenging.
The irony of playing a women's tournament at Caves Valley is not lost on Kathy St. John of Baltimore, who joined the Owings Mills club a year after it opened in 1991. If anything, St. John and others involved in this event hope the publicity generated by the area's first professional golf tournament in five years will inspire other women to join.
"It's a perfect opportunity to bring awareness to Caves Valley and what a phenomenal club it is, and an exceptional golf course," said St. John, who is heading up the player services committee this week. "I would like to see more women come in.
"This is a corporate golf club, and there are plenty of women that fit that bill. I think having this event and being an LPGA versus a PGA event, or any men's event, makes it the perfect opportunity to be a little more friendly to women. Maybe those girls will step up and seek out a membership."
While many other females have played Caves Valley as clients of members and guests of their husbands in its nearly quarter-century of existence, St. John is only one of 11 women among a current membership of approximately 550, according to Nancy Palmer, who has been the club's general manager since it opened.
Palmer said she fully understands why more women haven't joined over the years. An avid golfer before she started raising two daughters, now ages 16 and 20, Palmer said she spent most of her down time taking her children to riding lessons and competition, or lacrosse practices and games.
Even those women who still play Caves Valley on a regular basis are typically members at traditional country clubs. They feel more at ease in a foursome talking about their children or having a casual lunch afterward, from what Palmer has heard, than trying to close a deal between shots.
"We're a business golf club, and people aren't joining here to play their leisure golf," Palmer said. "They're here to entertain on the golf course, so the women, from what we're hearing, are not comfortable entertaining on the golf course. Hopefully, exposing ourselves to executive women who are interested in golf will provide some people who might be interested in being members."
To that end, the LPGA hosted an Executive Women's Day at Caves Valley on Tuesday, drawing more than 200 women from the Baltimore-area corporate community for a tour of the facilities, lunch and discussion about combining golf with business.
According to Palmer, the club also is likely going to be part of a six-month women's leadership program at Towson University that is scheduled to begin in January. Palmer said that, in getting feedback from a focus group, Towson found "many women said that they wanted to be more comfortable on a golf course."
Wendy Wilson plays regularly as a member at Baltimore Country Club, as well as at a club near her family's vacation home in South Carolina. She occasionally joins her husband, Alan, who has a corporate membership through his position as the chief executive officer of McCormick & Co., for a round at Caves Valley.
According to Wendy Wilson, it's both the image of a corporate club and the difficulty of the course that tend to make women shy away from joining.
"I think a lot of women are just intimidated to play a course that might have a reputation for being a difficult course to play, an exclusive course," said Wilson, a 17-to-22 handicap who shot a personal-best 84 at Caves Valley last summer. "They might be a little uncomfortable going into a course that they're unfamiliar with or has a history of being a special course or a men's-dominated course."
Wilson said the way Caves Valley caters to whoever comes to play — male or female — should remove that kind of wariness.
"I find that Caves Valley is extremely welcoming," Wilson said. "I almost think the caddies are relieved when they have a group of ladies because they feel like they don't have to chase their ball left and right into the woods, and our bags are a little bit lighter. It's maybe a little more relaxed round of golf."
The course that most of the women play — set up at a more-than-reasonable 5,275 yards — will be much different than what those vying for the trophy Sunday in the International Crown will see starting today. It is set up at a little more than 6,600 yards — around an average length for an LPGA event.
Still, the impression left by the early practice rounds has been of a long, hard course where players will need to keep the ball in the fairway to make birdies — and sometimes pars — and where putts will be fast as long as the weather stays dry.
The United States' Stacy Lewis, the world's top-ranked women's player, compared Caves Valley to Oakmont Country Club outside Pittsburgh, considered one of the toughest venues the LPGA has ever played in a major championship.
"It's a great golf course, it's hard, long," Lewis said of Caves Valley, adding that she hoped "they kind of move some tee boxes up and mess around with it a little bit and make it interesting throughout the week."
Said Paula Creamer, an American who played in a tournament as an amateur at Caves Valley: "It's long. The rough is pretty nasty if you get into it. Especially around the greens, the chipping is difficult. All in all, it's a good golf course, but it is long. It's playing long for us."
Hall of Famer Karrie Webb of Australia doesn't think the course will be set up as "majoresque" because of the nature of the event.
"You want to see birdies made, you want to see some excitement," Webb said. "But the course is in fantastic shape, and it's a great venue to host the first International Crown."
That is what Kelly Hyne, vice president of LPGA Properties, envisioned when the idea of holding an international team competition beside the Solheim Cup was first broached toward the end of 2011.
Hyne was familiar with Caves Valley after working for a company that helped run the 2001 U.S. Senior Open, a year before it was played there in 2002. "I always had Caves Valley in the back of my mind," Hyne said Wednesday.
Once the International Crown was put on the schedule, it took just three weeks to focus in on Caves Valley, Hyne said.
"It was kind of a marriage right away," Hyne said. "We knew it was the right event at the right time at the right place to start it."
Depending on how things turn out this week, the LPGA could return to Caves Valley in the future. Both Hyne and Palmer said they were open to the idea of playing either the biennial Solheim Cup or the LPGA Championship at Caves Valley.
The LPGA moved its championship out of Bulle Rock in Havre de Grace in 2009 after a five-year stay when McDonald's pulled its sponsorship. Starting next year, the PGA of America will help run the LPGA Championship, with KPMG as its title sponsor, and will move the tournament to a new location each year.
Caves Valley is likely to be on the list, Hyne said.
"As a future venue, once we work together, they're part of the family of the LPGA," Hyne said. "If there's ever an opportunity to come back with an event, we'll keep them in mind. We know this is going to be a successful event, it already is in our minds and theirs, so we'll certainly love to come back."
Said Palmer: "Caves is always in interested in championship golf."
And in women members.