A Great Little Town

By Randall MellMay 21, 2009, 4:00 pm
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LPGA Tour _newCORNING, N.Y. ' Down where Market and Pine streets meet, in the heart of downtown Corning, you could swear the giant hands on the clock tower move backward.
The brick-laden sidewalks in the town square look like cobblestone. Theres a drug store with an old, wooden RX sign over the front window just down from the square.
Norman Rockwell didnt paint Corning to life. It just feels that way.
Two-time Corning Classic champion Rosie Jones likes how time falls back here, how every spring this special place embraces LPGA pros as if they were favorite daughters returning home.
Thats what made Jones walk through downtown so emotional the day before Thursdays start of the Corning Classic. Shes here to help the LPGA say goodbye to one of her favorite tournaments.
Sometime late Sunday afternoon, when the last shot is struck, the Corning Classic will close its books after 31 memorable years. Corning Inc., manufacturer of glass and ceramic products, can no longer justify the cost of title sponsorship in a sagging economy.
This wasnt one of our huge, big events on tour, but it was a big, heartfelt event, Jones said. Those are hard to come by and those are hard to keep.
Jones is celebrated as the Queen of Corning, a moniker she earned becoming the tournaments only back-to-back champion with titles in 1996 and 97. She isnt playing this week, but she came back anyway to play in Tuesdays Super Shootout and Wednesdays pro-am. She wont be staying around for Sundays finish, though.
I think it would be really, really hard for me, she said.
Corning is a blue-collar city of 10,882. With no pro teams or big college events competing for its affection, this tournament has always been the big event in town.
A giant banner hangs across Market Street, welcoming the LPGA and its fans. Theres also a small, old-fashioned scoreboard in the middle of downtown, where folks who cant attend are able to see whos on the leaderboard as they shop or work. In years past, shop owners competed to see who could fashion the best store-front window decorations in golf themes. An LPGA player would be given the honor of acting as judge. There was a parade, too, with the event always held on Memorial Day weekend.
Market Street is where LPGA pros have long mingled with locals. Over a beer at Snootys Pig, a steak at Gaffers, a slice of pizza at Anniellos or coffee at Wegmans, players always enjoyed special guest status.
You go out to eat in Corning, and you know everyone in the restaurant, said Bev Stantz, co-chairman of the Corning Classic merchandise committee. Its a great little town.
Stantz has worked all 31 tournaments. She worked the first in 1979 as a hole marshal controlling the gallery.
Nobody probably thought this little tournament would last as long as it has when we started, Stantz said. Sadly enough, its finally run its course. You feel really bad saying goodbye. This tournaments done a lot for this community.
Over the years, the Corning Classic has pumped more than $5 million into local charities. While Corning Inc. has pledged to continue to help charities, the company announced a month ago that it could no longer afford to serve as title sponsor without a presenting sponsor. None could be found.
Corning Inc. reported sales falling to $989 million a year ago, a 39 percent plunge from the previous year. In January, the company announced the lay off of 3,500 employees.
Tournament President Jack Benjamin projects the Corning Classic will lose $400,000 this year.
Projections were worse for the years going forward, Benjamin said.
Thats partly because the LPGA was asking more in negotiations over a new contract. This marks the last year of a four-year deal with the tournament declining to pick up the option for next year. The tournaments board was negotiating a new deal through 2013 when it pulled the plug.
The cost of running this years Corning Classic will be about $3.7 million, Benjamin said. The tournament projects under a new four-year deal, those costs will average out to about $4.45 million annually, though Benjamin said its possible the LPGA would have made concessions to lower those costs.
The negotiations, however, never got that deep.
The LPGAs asking price didnt help, but that wasnt the reason for this decision, Benjamin said. We just cant generate the revenue to keep this tournament the way it is. The economys taken a huge toll.
Cornings the fourth LPGA tournament lost from the LPGAs 2008 schedule. Issues simmer with four events seeking new title sponsors and the contracts expiring at seven other events.
Unfortunately, quite a few companies are in Cornings place, said two-time LPGA winner Morgan Pressel. And this is one you never thought you would lose because its been around so long. Theres frustration among players, because we want to play more and we want to play more state side. Travels a pain, but its where we are heading.
Pointing a derisive finger at the LPGA for upping its asking price is difficult to do when Corning Inc. wont do it and neither will any of the Tours own players. Nobody within the tours current player ranks is challenging the Tours new business model. A sagging economy looms too large in the equation to blame anything else.
Everythings all about business this day and age, said Jan Stephenson, the only player in this weeks field who competed in the inaugural Corning Classic in 1979. I remember how it used to be, how its been here for so long. I came back this year just to thank Corning for all its done for us.
Stephenson, 57, remembers being designated one year to judge the store-front window decorations on Market Street.
Though Stephenson, a 16-time LPGA winner, seriously contended just once in 13 starts at Corning, she loves the intimate nature of this event. So did her father, Frank, who caddied for her that first year. He loved Corning until the day he died in 1988.
They loved him here, too, Stephenson said. He used to send Christmas cards to friends he made here.
Stephenson, like so many players, is a guest in private housing this week. She and former champion Cindy Rarick are staying with the owners of a vineyard in a house in a valley overlooking a lake.
Its like being on holiday, she said.
Stephenson remembers teeing it up that first year in 79. Penny Pulz won the inaugural event in bone-shivering cold weather. Over the years, many of the tours greatest players stepped up to take the trophy. Donna Caponi, Patty Sheehan, JoAnne Carner, Pat Bradley, Betsy King, Juli Inkster, Beth Daniel and Annika Sorenstam have all won it.
I still remember how cold it was that first year, Stephenson said. There was sleet during the pro-am.
Weather has been one of the few negatives in this event, with springs unpredictable waves making rain and cold so often a factor. This week, the weathers been spectacular with Thursdays start opening in warm and sunny conditions.
I think its Gods way of saying thank you, said tour veteran Lorie Kane.
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