EVIAN-LES-BAINS, France – There’s a new starlet in the LPGA’s major championship lineup.
Here in the shadow of the Alps, on the emerald fairways perched above Lake Geneva, the Evian Championship boldly steps up in class this week as the fifth major in women’s golf.
For a number of years now, this event has felt like a major for the Europeans in the LPGA ranks. Evian has built a reputation among pros for its first-class presentation and amenities, but now there’s a whole new standard to measure up to in its first year as an officially designated major. There is added scrutiny over whether this starlet will be a supreme enough examination to be worthy of its new status.
This championship was founded as the Evian Masters in 1994 as a Ladies European Tour event. It became a co-sanctioned LPGA event in 2000 with the LPGA announcing two years ago that it would be a major.
The list of past winners is impressive, speaking to the caliber of fields the event has attracted from its start, with Helen Alfredsson winning the inaugural competition. Annika Sorenstam, Juli Inkster, Karrie Webb, Laura Davies, Paula Creamer, Jiyai Shin and Ai Miyazato are among an All Star cast that has won here. Rolex world No. 1 Inbee Park is the defending champ.
The purse is also impressive at $3.25 million, equaling the U.S. Women’s Open as the richest on tour.
The largest question looming over Evian’s worthiness as a major is the redesign of the Evian Resort Golf Club. It was an $8 million undertaking over the last year, with everything about the course upgraded, from the tees to the fairway configurations to the green complexes and bunkering. It is a different and more substantial test that architect Steve Smyers and European Golf Design created in their collaborative effort. There’s a lot at stake with the nature of this new test likely having the ultimate say in whether this really feels like a major championship.
Will the golf be as pure as the famed spring waters here?
Will the test be as grand as the picturesque setting the Alps and Lake Geneva give this course?
“It’s coming together,” Smyers told GolfChannel.com. “We had extremely difficult weather in the winter, and then a cold and wet spring. It might have been the worst weather there in recorded history, but the staff there has done a wonderful job getting the course ready. The test will be there. You’re going to have a championship test that is really going to identify the best ball-strikers.”
While players say the test is admirably upgraded, that quirky elements of the original design have been softened, there are some issues with the new grasses. The early reviews are that this course is another year from being what Evian and the architects imagined. There are some bare patches in the new sod laid down, spotty enough that they are expected to be marked as ground under repair this week. There are also some issues in how the greens are a little inconsistent in the way they receive shots.
“I think it’s OK,” two-time major championship winner Cristie Kerr said. “Obviously, it’s not in the shape they wanted. That’s just the way it is when you try to get it all done in such a short period of time, but we do love this place.”
There is an undeniable affection for this event among players, and there’s hope that the newly redesigned course will win their affection as thoroughly as everything that goes with this week.
“I have always loved this golf course,” said Paula Creamer, who won the Evian Masters in ’05. “I think it’s a great test, but to be major championship worthy it needed to be tougher.”
Evian Resort Golf Club is built on the side of a mountain. Smyers and European Golf Design made it tougher adding length, making tee shots with drivers more challenging. They made it tougher flattening out some landing areas on the side of this mountain but then adding more undulation to the much larger greens they created.
The course is marked at 6,433 yards, which is actually a few yards shorter than it played last year, but Smyers said it has the potential to play 300 yards longer than a year ago. Also, it’s now a par 71 layout instead of par 72 with the 18th hole now a long par 4 instead of a short par 5.
In great measure, Evian’s elevation to major championship status is the fruit of Franck Riboud’s ambitious vision and LPGA commissioner Mike Whan’s bold leadership.
Riboud is the CEO of Groupe Danone, which owns Evian mineral water and Dannon, the yogurt company. Before Whan officially took over as commissioner in 2010, Riboud was in his ear, wooing him with his grand plan. In the end, it made sense to Whan, but only if Riboud and Evian’s tournament management could meet Whan’s list of demands. The course redesign was at the top of the list.
“I grinded over this a long time,” Whan told GolfChannel.com back when he decided to declare Evian a major. “If you asked me before I became commissioner how I would stand on designating a fifth major, I probably wouldn’t have been in favor of it. I’m really respectful of the game’s traditions. I didn’t want to mess with tradition without walking through this.
“There was a list of 10 things I really thought kept this tournament from being a legitimate major, and until they were addressed, there was really no point in talking about something more significant. To Evian’s credit, we knocked all 10 off the list.”
Majors evolve over time, but Evian evolved into one practically overnight.
The caliber of this week's winner, the nature of the leaderboard and the drama that unfolds will have a lot to say about whether this feels right as a major.