Founders Cup growing in importance to LPGA

By Randall MellMarch 19, 2014, 9:00 pm

PHOENIX – The JTBC Founders Cup is old for its age.

In the best way, that is.

It radiates with memories, like a historic event that has been around since the dawn of the LPGA.

This is just the fourth year the Founders Cup will have been played, but it feels so much older because it reaches back so far for its meaning. It reaches all the way back to 1950, when the LPGA was formed. The beauty of this event is that it was built to celebrate the tour’s past, honoring its 13 founders and its pioneers, while also promoting the future of women’s golf. LPGA-USGA Girls’ Golf is the charity beneficiary.

Hall of Famer Kathy Whitworth, winner of a record 88 LPGA titles, is a tournament honoree this year. So is Renee Powell, the second black woman to play the tour, having made her start as the civil rights struggle raged across the land.

The Founders Cup is quickly evolving as the most important women’s tournament outside the majors.

“This has become a marquee event on our schedule,” says Heather Daly-Donofrio, the LPGA’s senior vice president of Tour Operations.

“It has become one of the best stops on tour,” fourth-year LPGA pro Gerina Piller said.

All the tour’s stars show up to play the Founders Cup. It boasts the strongest field this season. The top 12 players in the Rolex world rankings will tee it up together this week. No. 1 Inbee Park, No. 2 Suzann Pettersen and No. 3 Stacy Lewis lead the field at J.W. Marriott’s Wildfire Golf Club.

The list of past Founders Cup champs isn’t very long yet, but the quality of the winners speaks volumes about the nature of the event. Hall of Famer Karrie Webb won the inaugural competition in 2011, with then world No. 1 Yani Tseng winning in 2012 and with Lewis winning last year to seize the No. 1 ranking from Tseng.

“The story of this event is remarkable,” Daly-Donofrio said. “We started, basically, with players playing for free, playing for charities. Who else in professional sports would do that? And we’ve built this up to where this tournament is going to be around for a very long time.”

The remarkable story is in the vision LPGA commissioner Mike Whan showed creating the event. It’s also in the risk he took selling his bold idea to his membership. He basically asked his players to play for free that first year, with the entire purse going to charity. The idea was to “pay it forward” to women’s golf while honoring its past.

It seemed like the right idea at the wrong time.

Initially, there was some backlash.

Whan proposed the new event with LPGA pros hurting, with fewer opportunities to play in a shrinking schedule. The tour was down to a paltry 23 events in ’11. There were players who questioned Whan’s Founders Cup plan, not necessarily over playing for free, but over how the charity payoff and “mock purse” were structured.

Whan listened to his players, and he tinkered with his idea, expanding charity opportunities beyond Girls’ Golf to personal player charities.

And Whan pulled it off. He got his players to compete with all the prize money going to charity.

The generosity, the sacrificial nature of the LPGA pros who competed, made a large impression on RR Donnelley, the title sponsor of that first event. In the second year of the competition, the company stepped up, funding not only the charity, but also a real purse.

It was a testament to Whan and his vision of what the tour ought to be. He envisioned his players channeling the spirit of the founders. He envisioned them trying to leave the tour better than they found it.

“When we all first heard about it, it was kind of a shock,” Lewis said. “It was kind of like, `Are you serious?’ We didn’t know if he was actually serious. But I think once people got the concept, we understood.”

Christina Kim said channeling the spirit of the founders was a wonderful concept.

“I am big on never forgetting where you came from,” Kim said. “The founders built this tour from nothing to where now we get to play with logos plastered all over us and with endorsement deals. They didn’t play for much back when they were starting this tour. They were playing for the love of the game. I really felt like some people forgot about that.”

Daly-Donofrio said the founders’ spirit has become a governing principle under Whan.

“We wouldn’t be where we are today without the 13 founders,” Daly-Donofrio said. “It’s something we talk about at the LPGA on a daily basis, acting like a founder.”

Webb was on the LPGA board of directors when Whan proposed the Founders Cup concept.

“It was definitely bold and risky,” Webb said.

Webb liked the idea, but she didn’t know if a title sponsor would go for it. Now, she believes channeling the founders’ spirit that first year made all the difference in the world with corporations paying attention. The LPGA’s schedule has grown from 23 events to 32 events since the Founders Cup was created.

“Could that be a reason we’ve had such a big turnaround?” Webb said. “Maybe people took notice that we were prepared to do that at a time when maybe we shouldn’t have been prepared to do that, and maybe the positive feedback it got has helped us.”

Webb also points to the growth of LPGA-USGA Girls’ Golf since it became the beneficiary of the Founders Cup. Once again this year, $500,000 from tournament proceeds will go to the cause. The Girls’ Golf program has grown six-fold since the Founders Cup was founded, from 5,000 members in 2011 to 30,000 this year.

Though there were title sponsor questions before JTBC stepped in earlier this year, Lewis believes the Founders Cup is here to stay. She gave $50,000 of her winnings here last year to LPGA-USGA Girls’ Golf.

“We’re going to keep this tournament going whether we have a sponsor or not,” Lewis said.

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Fleetwood flawless en route to Abu Dhabi lead

By Will GrayJanuary 18, 2018, 2:06 pm

New year, same results for Tommy Fleetwood.

The reigning Race to Dubai champ picked up where he left off in the opening round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, carding a bogey-free 66 during which the Englishman found all 18 greens in regulation. At 6 under, he shares the lead with Japan's Hideto Tanihara and sits one shot clear of five other players.

"Very stress-free. Played really well from start to finish," Fleetwood said. "Felt like I did what you need to do around this golf course, which is drive it well, hit your irons solid. You can't really be too greedy a lot of the time, and then sort of my pace putting was really good. So basically just did what you need to do to get a good score around this golf course, and I got one."

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Fleetwood shined in a marquee grouping that included world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy, as he birdied three holes on each nine. This is his first worldwide start since a T-3 finish at the Hero World Challenge.

It was at this event a year ago that Fleetwood sparked a career campaign, edging Johnson and Pablo Larrazabal for the win. He added another win at the French Open in the summer to go along with a pair of runner-up results and a T-4 finish at the U.S. Open, all of which helped him capture the European Tour's season-long title.

Fleetwood's sudden success in Abu Dhabi serves as a microcosm for his career resurgence. Prior to last year's victory, he had missed the cut in four of his five other trips to this event.

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Sergio starts season with 66 in Singapore

By Associated PressJanuary 18, 2018, 12:56 pm

SINGAPORE – Sergio Garcia opened his season with a 5-under 66 and a share of the clubhouse lead on Thursday in the first round of the weather-interrupted Singapore Open.

Playing his first tournament of the year, the Masters champion rebounded after making an early bogey to collect four birdies and an eagle at the Sentosa Golf Club.

He was later joined by American qualifier Kurt Kitayama in the clubhouse lead. Still on the course, Tirawat Kaewsiribandit was at 6 under through 16 holes when play was suspended for the day because of the threat of lightning.

Louis Oosthuizen, the 2010 Open champion, was at 5 under through 16 holes when he also had to stop his round because of the weather.

Of the players who did finish their opening rounds, only three were within two strokes of Garcia and Kitayama. One of them was Casey O'Toole, who aced the par-3 second with a 7-iron.

The 38-year-old Garcia dropped his only shot of the day on the par-4 15th, his sixth hole after teeing off on the back nine, when he missed the fairway and was unable to make par. But he made amends when he birdied the par-3 17th and then eagled the par-5 18th to go out in 33.

''I was 1 over after (the) seventh but it didn't feel like I was playing badly,'' said Garcia, who made birdies on each of the two par 5s and one of the par 3s on the second nine. ''But then I hit two greats in a row for holes 17 and 18. I got a birdie-eagle there, so that settled me a little bit and I could play solid in the back nine and it was a great round.''

Garcia made the shortlist for the Laureus Sports Awards in the Breakthrough of the Year category after claiming his first major at Augusta National last year and is hoping for more success this season.

He credits the Singapore Open as having played a part in toughening him up for his Masters win because he opted to start his 2017 campaign in the stifling humidity of Southeast Asia to prepare himself for the bigger tournaments ahead.

Although he finished tied for 11th in Singapore, Garcia won the Dubai Desert Classic the next week and was in peak form when he won the Masters two months later.

Kitayama only secured his place in the $1 million event on Monday by finishing at the top of the qualifying competition, but he made a strong start with birdies on three of his first five holes. The 25-year-old Thai was 6 under through 13 holes but spoiled his otherwise flawless round with a bogey on his last.

''I started with a birdie and I just let it roll from there. I had some good tee shots, which I think, is the biggest thing for this course,'' Kitayama said. ''I'm a little tired, but I'm hanging in there. Whenever I have time off, I'll try not to think too much about golf.''

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13-year-old beats DJ in closest-to-the-pin contest

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 18, 2018, 12:26 pm

Dustin Johnson didn’t just get beat by Tommy Fleetwood and Rory McIlroy on Day 1 of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Even a 13-year-old got the best of the world No. 1.

Oscar Murphy teed off on the 177-yard 15th hole as part of the tournament’s Beat the Pro challenge during the opening round. The Northern Irishman, one of the HSBC’s Future Falcons, carved a 3-wood toward a back-right pin, about 25 feet away, closer than both Johnson and Fleetwood.

“An unbelievable shot,” Fleetwood said afterward, “and me and Rory both said, ‘We don’t have that in our locker.’”

Johnson still made par on the hole, but he mixed four birdies with four bogeys Thursday for an even-par 72 that left him six shots back of Fleetwood and Hideto Tanihara after the opening round.

Johnson, who tied for second here a year ago, is coming off a dominant performance at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, where he won by eight shots to strengthen his lead atop the world rankings. 

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McIlroy 'really pleased' with opening 69 in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 18, 2018, 12:10 pm

It was an auspicious 2018 debut for Rory McIlroy.

Playing alongside world No. 1 Dustin Johnson for his first round since October, McIlroy missed only one green and shot a bogey-free 69 at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. McIlroy is three shots back of reigning Race to Dubai champion Tommy Fleetwood, who played in the same group as McIlroy and Johnson, and Hideto Tanihara.

Starting on the back nine at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, McIlroy began with 11 consecutive pars before birdies on Nos. 3, 7 and 8.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

“I was excited to get going,” he told reporters afterward. “The last couple of months have been really nice in terms of being able to concentrate on things I needed to work on in my game and health-wise. I feel like I’m the most prepared for a season that I’ve ever been, but it was nice to get back out there.”

Fleetwood, the defending champion, raced out to another lead while McIlroy and Johnson, who shot 72, just tried to keep pace.

“Tommy played very well and I was just trying to hang onto his coattails for most of the round, so really pleased – bogey-free 69, I can’t really complain,” McIlroy said.

This was his first competitive round in more than three months, since a tie for 63rd at the Dunhill Links. He is outside the top 10 in the world ranking for the first time since 2014.