What women want: Elite venues for major events

By Randall MellJune 27, 2017, 5:13 pm

OLYMPIA FIELDS, Ill. – More of the grand doors in golf are opening to women.

The KPMG Women’s PGA Championship is making sure of that.

Olympia Fields Country Club’s North Course is hosting the event this week in suburban Chicago. It’s the first time the club will be home to a professional women’s major. Sahalee hosted its first women’s major last year, and the PGA just announced Hazeltine will host in 2019.

The nature of these iconic courses, with the history they have built hosting men’s majors, matters immensely to the best female players in the world.

“It gives us validation, playing these great courses,” seven time major championship winner Juli Inkster said. “It’s important to the women’s game, the recognition that comes playing great courses.”

Walter Hagen won the seventh of his 11 major championships at Olympia Fields. The course was designed by Willie Park Jr., the two-time Open champion. Olympia Fields has hosted two U.S. Opens, two PGA Championships, five Western Opens, the U.S. Amateur and the U.S. Senior Open.

“The history is important,” Inkster said. “You walk on to these major championship sites and you want to know who won there. You want to put your name with theirs. There’s validation being among the great players who have won on the great courses.”

KPMG Women’s PGA Championship: Articles, photos and videos

The women played the U.S. Open at Oakmont in 2010, with Paula Creamer winning. They also played it there in 1992, with Patty Sheehan winning. They’ll play the U.S. Women’s Open at The Olympic Club in 2021.

“It’s important to play these great courses, not only for the women to test their games, but for the fans who tune in to watch,” Hall of Famer Beth Daniel said. “People tune in not just to see the LPGA, but because they know the course. It makes the telecasts more interesting for everyone.

“And as a player, I know I was super inspired playing a great golf course.”

The women hope the PGA’s determination to go to iconic venues will lead the USGA to take the U.S. Women’s Open to more of the traditional sites in its men’s rotation.

Why not Pebble Beach?

Or Shinnecock?

Or Merion?

“It’s frustrating, at times,” said two-time major champion Stacy Lewis, who won the Ricoh Women’s British Open at the Old Course at St. Andrews four years ago. “Why can’t we have a U.S. Women’s Open at Pebble Beach? Why aren’t we playing some of these other great courses? It’s not about ability. We can play these courses.”

The Ricoh Women’s British Open is showing that with regularity.

No major championship has swung the doors to iconic venues more open to women than the Brits. The Women’s British Open has been going regularly to the courses in men’s Open rotation since it became a major in 2001.

Lorena Ochoa won at the Old Course at St. Andrews the first time the Women’s British Open was played there in ’07.

Inbee Park won at Turnberry in 2015.

Mo Martin won at Royal Birkdale in 2014.

Yani Tseng won at Carnoustie in 2011.

Lewis beamed walking across the Swilcan Bridge after making birdie at the Road Hole on her way to winning at St. Andrews on that magical Sunday of hers four years ago.

“I love history,” Lewis said. “I was on cloud nine being there that whole week, taking in the town. I don’t know how you top winning at the Home of Golf. Only a few players have won majors there, even in the men’s game, and to be one of those is a huge honor I’ll never forget.”

Lewis was an important player’s voice in the LPGA Championship morphing into the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship. The major has elevated tenfold, thanks to the PGA’s cache and its resolve to find traditional venues to host the championship.

KPMG was a corporate sponsor to Lewis when the company decided to become title sponsor of this championship. KPMG global chairman John Veihmeyer said his company probably wouldn’t be involved if not for Lewis. Her fingerprints are on this event.

“One of the things we told KPMG and the PGA is that we wanted to play on courses we haven’t traditionally been on,” Lewis said.

While Sahalee’s history is relatively new as a major championship course, there was a majestic quality to the venue that added grandeur that the LPGA Championship was severely lacking. Westchester added that, too, in the championship’s start in 2015.

Lewis relished getting chances at St. Andrews and Oakmont and is eager to see what else opens up for the women.

“You step on the property at these great courses, and you can feel the history,” Lewis said. “You can feel what kind of golf you’re going to get to play. These are the kind of places we should be playing.”

Paula Creamer was bold enough to call out Augusta National two years ago, wondering aloud why they can’t host a Women’s Masters.

“There’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to,” Creamer said.

Why aren’t women playing majors on more of the greatest American courses?

Is it as simple as the fact that men's events are more lucrative than women's? Or is it that some of theses venues just don't want the women? Or maybe it's that they fear losing their place in the U.S. Open or PGA Championship rotations if they host the women?

“I think it is probably more about their spot in the men’s rotation, but maybe a little bit about just not wanting the women,” Inkster said. “That’s maybe still the thinking of the old school.”

Inkster believes the women deserve a harder look from the men who are guarding the gates to so many of golf’s historic venues.

“The women’s game has changed so much,” Inkster said. “If you haven’t watched the women’s game lately, you would be surprised by the play, how powerful women are today.”

Cristie Kerr, a two-time major champion, likes how the women have gained more opportunities on iconic venues since she joined the LPGA  in 1997.

“The world’s evolving to be more inclusive at these great courses,” Kerr said. “It shows we’re in a modern era where we can showcase the women’s games on these famous courses.

“It was a huge deal playing Oakmont. The men have more history than us, but playing Oakmont, Olympia Fields and courses like that help us build our own history.”

Inkster is encouraged where women’s golf is headed. While serving as a course reporter for Fox’s coverage of the U.S. Open at Erin Hills two weeks ago, Inkster was approached by USGA executive director Mike Davis.

“Mike said ‘What would you think about having a U.S. Women’s Open at Erin Hills?’” Inkster said. “If that would ever happen, I don’t know, but I told him any course we can play that the guys have played adds to the recognition and validation.

“I’d love to play Pebble Beach as a U.S. Women’s Open. Merion would set up great for a U.S. Women’s Open. It’s not long, it’s not beasty. You have to play smart. You have to keep it in the fairway.”

Hollis Stacy, the four-time major championship winner and world Golf Hall of Famer, says there’s progress in how these elite venues are seeing opportunities for the larger game by hosting women.

“The LPGA, the USGA and the PGA see how much the women’s game has evolved globally,” Stacy said. “They’re seeing the opportunity to drive numbers up even more globally, to make money. It see it as a coming of age for the LPGA as a brand that’s viable globally.”

Lewis believes LPGA pros can pave the way for improving the comfort level of women at clubs around the world.

“I think when we play at these great courses, it changes the norm, what everyone thinks is the norm,” Lewis said. “It’s like the way only guys get to play golf on Saturdays at some places. Why can’t women play golf on Saturdays?

“We can change the perception about women playing at these prestigious clubs. We need to be the ones who start that change. It’s gotten better, with women becoming members of clubs, but it’s still about making women more comfortable playing there. That’s what we’re trying to change.”

Day: Woods feeling good, hitting it long

By Golf Channel DigitalNovember 22, 2017, 9:33 pm

Jason Day says Tiger Woods told him he feels better than he has in three years, which is good news for Woods a week ahead of his return to the PGA Tour at the Hero World Challenge.

Day, a fellow Nike endorser, was asked about Woods during his news conference at the Emirates Australian Open on Wednesday. "I did talk to him," Day said, per a report in the Sydney Morning Herald,"and he did say it's the best he's ever felt in three years'" Day said.

"He doesn't wake up with pain anymore, which is great. I said to him, 'Look, it's great to be one of the best players ever to live, but health is one thing that we all take for granted and if you can't live a happy, healthy life, then that's difficult.'"

The Hero World Challenge will be played Nov. 30-Dec. 3 in the Bahamas and broadcast on Golf Channel and NBC.

Day, who has had his own health issues, said he could empathize with Woods.

"I totally understand where he's coming from, because sometimes I wake up in the morning and it takes me 10 minutes to get out of bed, and for him to be in pain for three years is very frustrating."

Woods has not played since February after undergoing surgery following a recurrence of back problems.

"From what I see on Instagram and what he's been telling me, he says he's ready and I'm hoping that he is, because from what I hear, he's hitting it very long," Day said.

"And if he's hitting it long and straight, then that's going to be tough for us because it is Tiger Woods. He's always been a clutch putter and in amongst the best and it will be interesting to see.

"There's no pressure. I think it's a 17- or 18-man field, there's no cut, he's playing at a tournament where last year I think he had the most birdies at."

Move over Lydia, a new Ko is coming to LPGA

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 5:11 pm

Another gifted young South Korean will be joining the LPGA ranks next year.

Jin Young Ko, the Korean LPGA Tour star, informed the American-based LPGA on Sunday night that she will be taking up membership next year. Ko earned the right by winning the LPGA’s KEB Hana Bank Championship as a nonmember in South Korea in October.

Ko, 22, no relation to Lydia Ko, first burst on to the international spotlight with her run into contention at the Ricoh Women’s British Open at Turnberry two years ago. She led there through 54 holes, with Inbee Park overtaking her in the final round to win.

With 10 KLPGA Tour titles, three in each of the last two seasons, Ko has risen to No. 19 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings.

Ko told GolfChannel.com Sunday afternoon that she was struggling over the decision, with a Monday deadline looming.

“It’s a difficult decision to leave home,” Ko said after the final round of the CME Group Tour Championship in Naples, when she was still undecided. “The travelling far away, on my own, the loneliness, that’s what is difficult.”

Ko will be the favorite to win the LPGA’s Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year Award next year. South Koreans have won that award the last three years. Sung Hyun Park won it this year, In Gee Chun last year and Sei Young Kim in 2015. South Korean-born players have won the last four, with New Zealand’s Lydia Ko winning it in 2014. Ko was born in South Korea and moved to New Zealand when she was 6.

Ko released this statement through the LPGA on Wednesday: 

"It has been my dream since I was young to play on the LPGA Tour and I look forward to testing myself against the best players on a worldwide stage. I know it is going to be tough but making a first win as an LPGA member and winning the Rolex Rookie of the Year award would be two of the biggest goals I would like to achieve next year."

Piller pregnant, no timetable for LPGA return

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 4:22 pm

Gerina Piller, the American Olympian golfer and three-time Solheim Cup veteran, is pregnant and will not be rejoining the LPGA when the 2018 season opens, the New York Times reported following the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship.

Piller, 32, who is married to PGA Tour pro Martin Piller, is due with the couple’s first child in May, Golf Channel’s Jerry Foltz reported.

Piller declined an interview request when GolfChannel.com sought comment going into the CME Group Tour Championship.

Piller told the New York Times she has no timetable for her return but that she isn’t done with competitive golf.

“I’m not just giving everything up,” Piller said.

As parity reigns, LPGA searching for a superstar

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 4:00 pm

Apologies to the LPGA’s golden eras, but women’s golf has never been deeper.

With the game going global, with the unrelenting wave of Asian talent continuing to slam the tour’s shores, with Thailand and China promising to add to what South Korea is delivering, it’s more difficult than ever to win.

That’s a beautiful and perplexing thing for the women’s game.

That’s because it is more difficult than ever to dominate.

And that’s a magic word in golf.

There is no more powerful elixir in the sport.

Domination gets you on the cover of Sports Illustrated, on ESPN SportsCenter, maybe even on NBC Nightly News if the “D” in domination is dynamic enough.

The women’s best chance of moving their sport to another stratosphere is riding the back of a superstar.

Or maybe a pair of superstar rivals.

Photos: 2017 LPGA winners gallery

A constellation of stars may be great for the devoted regular supporters of the women’s game, but it will take a charismatic superstar to make casual fans care.

The LPGA needs a Serena Williams.

Or the reincarnation of Babe Zaharias.

For those of us who regularly follow the LPGA, this constellation of stars makes for compelling stories, a variety of scripting to feature.

The reality, however, is that it takes one colossal story told over and over again to burst out of a sports niche.

The late, great CBS sports director Frank Chirkinian knew what he had sitting in a TV production truck the first time he saw one of his cameras bring a certain young star into focus at the Masters.

It’s this player coming up over the brow of the hill at the 15th hole to play his second shot,” Chirkinian once told me over lunch at a golf course he owned in South Florida.  “He studies his shot, then flips his cigarette, hitches up his trousers and takes this mighty swipe and knocks the shot on the green. It was my first experience with Arnold Palmer, and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, who is this guy?’

“The thing about golf, more than any other sport, it’s always looking for a star. It’s the only sport where people will root against the underdog. They don’t want the stars to lose. They’re OK with some unknown rising up to be the story on Thursday or Friday, but they always want to see the stars win.”

And they go gaga when it’s one star so radiant that he or she dominates attention.

“It didn’t matter if Arnold was leading, or where he was, you had to show him,” Chirkinian said. “You never knew when he might do something spectacular.”

The LPGA is in a healthy place again, with a big upside globally, with so much emerging talent sharing the spotlight.

Take Sunday at the CME Group Tour Championship.

The back nine started with Lexi Thompson and Michelle Wie making the turn tied for the lead. There is no more powerful pairing to sell in the women’s game today, but there would be no duel. It would have been too far off script as the final chapter to this season.

Parity was the story this year.

Sunday in Naples started with 18 players within two shots of the lead.

Entering that back nine, almost a dozen players were in the mix, including Ariya Jutanugarn.

The day ended with Jutanugarn beating Thompson with a dramatic birdie-birdie finish after Thompson stunned viewers missing a 2-foot putt for par at the last.

The day encapsulated the expanding LPGA universe.

“I’ve never seen such crazy, brilliant golf from these ladies,” said Gary Gilchrist, who coaches Jutanugarn, Lydia Ko and Rolex world No. 1 Shanshan Feng. “It was unbelievable out there. It was just like birdie after birdie after birdie, and the scoreboard went up and down. And that’s why it’s so hard to be No. 1 on this tour. There’s not one person who can peak. It’s all of them at a phenomenal level of golf.”

If Thompson had made that last 2-footer and gone on to win the CME, she would have become the sixth different world No. 1 this year. Before this year, there had never been more than three different No. 1s in a single LPGA season.

Parity was the theme from the year’s start.

There were 15 different winners to open the season, something that hadn’t happened in 26 years. There were five different major championship winners.

This year’s Rolex Player of the Year Award was presented Sunday to So Yeon Ryu and Sung Hyun Park. It’s the first time the award has been shared since its inception in 1966.

Thompson won twice this year, with six second-place finishes, with three of those playoff losses, one of them in a major championship. She was close to putting together a spectacular year. She was close to dominating and maybe becoming the tour’s one true rock star.

Ultimately, Thompson showed us how hard that is to do now.

She’s in a constellation we’re all watching, to see if maybe one star breaks out, somebody able to take the game into living rooms it has never been, to a level of popularity it’s never been.

The game won’t get there with another golden era. It will get there with a golden player.