Major move good for LPGA, hard to reconcile for Rochester

LPGA commissioner Michael Whan, KPMG chairman John Veihmeyer and PGA of America CEO Pete Bevacqua sign the final contract for the KPMG Women's PGA Championship on May 29. (Getty Images)

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PITTSFORD, N.Y. – This is an awkward week.

There’s no getting around that with the final Wegmans LPGA Championship being staged at Monroe Golf Club.

For 38 years, the Rochester area has been home to an LPGA event, with Locust Hill Country Club host to every tournament played here until this year’s. In news that hit this golf community hard, the LPGA announced 10 weeks ago that it wasn’t just leaving Locust Hill, it was reconfiguring the LPGA Championship as the new KPMG Women’s PGA Championship. And it was taking it on the road, beginning in 2015. It’s partnering with the PGA of America and ending its long association with Rochester.

“It’s definitely bittersweet being here this year, knowing we’re not coming back,” Morgan Pressel said.

Pressel has been staying with the Gorslines as her host family ever since she began playing here eight years ago. Crofts and Jane Gorsline have made her feel like family over the years. Lots of players have created strong bonds with host families. 

“I think we’ll all be emotional come Sunday,” Pressel said. “I love it here. Pittsford is awesome. I have all my favorite spots, my favorite restaurants, my yoga spot, and all those different places I’ve been going to for years. Wegmans has been amazing to us, and it’s really sad that an event that’s been here almost 40 years won’t be here any longer. Hopefully, we can make this the best one and send it out on a good note.”

Still, Pressel and her peers understand what an important major championship upgrade they’re going to get with the PGA of America taking over the event. The PGA has been in the business of putting on majors since 1916. The players appreciate what KPMG and the PGA’s investment in them says about their product.

For the Rochester community, though, the news left it feeling like a spurned lover.

LPGA commissioner Mike Whan knew there would be some bitterness to contend with, and it came quickly with a harsh reaction in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle the day after the news was announced.

“It seems surreal,” columnist Leo Roth wrote. “Like we're pulling a 1-iron from our backs. That nearly 40 years of goodwill, friendships, charity fundraising and history meant nothing to an ambitious commissioner with an inflated view of his tour and a new generation of players who've grown up feeling entitled to more.”

Ouch.

The emotion is understandable from a local perspective, from folks who have poured so much into hosting an event since 1977. Looking at the bigger picture, though, this was a terrific move for the LPGA. Wegmans commitment was uncertain. It’s a regional company, and it’s been operating with a year-to-year agreement with the LPGA. The new PGA deal was a chance to lock in this major’s long-term future.

“The PGA told me point blank, 'We are going to go to our board, and we’re going to say, 'Let’s not commit to do this unless we are going to commit to it for the next 50-plus years.'' That’s how they entered this agreement with us,” Whan said.

The KPMG Women’s PGA Championship will be played at Westchester Country Club in its first year. The purse will jump from $2.25 million to $3.5 million. A new network TV deal will be in place.

“Sitting on the LPGA board, there’s not a lot wrong with that scenario,” Hall of Famer Karrie Webb said.

With Kraft Nabisco not returning as title sponsor of the year’s first major, Whan is looking at building long-term stability for all his majors to give them all a chance for long traditions like the men have built. The women’s majors have been a patchwork of championships over the years. Eight different events have been considered women’s majors since 1972. There was a time in the ‘70s when the women played just two majors.

“When I started back in 2010, we had a lot of conversations, between myself and the board, about how we have to find ways so our majors can have 50-year runs,” Whan said. “We can’t be in a situation where we are tied to a major but looking for a new contract every three or four years.”

Once a long-term future for the former Kraft Nabisco is secured, Whan likes the way his five-major-championship lineup sets up, with the U.S. Women’s Open, the Ricoh Women’s British Open, the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship and the Evian Championship all on apparently stable foundations.

“Some of them might be fresh and new, so they’re still building that tradition, but I think they’re going to be around for a long, long time,” Whan said. “We have a lot of work to do to cement that fifth one in the desert, but we have an opportunity to build tradition that’s been difficult in women’s golf, because we’ve always been kind of tied to the corporate check.

“The majors become majors because of history, not anything else.”

The LPGA is losing some history with its move away from Rochester. It was a regular tour event for its first 33 years, becoming a major in 2010.

Pat Bradley won the first LPGA event staged here in 1977. Nancy Lopez won three of the first five. Patty Sheehan won four LPGA titles in this city. The winners here are a who’s who of women’s golf.

“It’s sad,” Angela Stanford said. “It’s said for the community, and it’s sad for the players.”

Knowing the strong emotion that would follow the LPGA’s decision to leave Rochester, Whan flew here three days after the announcement. He stepped in for a player scheduled to be the center piece of the Wegmans LPGA Championship’s Media Day. He took all the hard questions.

“There were myths vs. reality flying around,” Whan said. “I was glad I went. I’m not saying it was easy, but I loved the fact that people at Rochester were struggling with the decision because they loved the event. I know we struggled with the decision, but that’s why I believe we’ll be back. I think there’s just a lot of love between Rochester and the LPGA.”

With the PGA of America’s relationship with Oak Hill, it’s not a stretch to wonder if this major will make its return to Rochester one year. There’s also the possibility of a Solheim Cup coming to Oak Hill, or a regular event returning here someday.’

“When I started as commissioner, a lot of people told me it’s a shame we won’t be going back to Toledo, and we won’t be going back to Phoenix, and asking why we don’t play in Hawaii anymore,” Whan said. “As I’ve said from the beginning, I know we’re not going to be in Rochester next year, but I personally believe we will be back to Rochester in time. There’s just too much support, too many families, too many volunteers and too much great golf. I don’t know how or where that will be, but if Toledo, Hawaii and Phoenix are any indication, we find our way back to great hotbeds.”

Linda Hampton, the tournament coordinator for the local foundation that runs the Wegmans LPGA Championship, said the aim this week is to celebrate the LPGA’s rich history in Rochester.

“When we heard the news, it was hard to believe,” said Hampton, who has been helping run the event for 35 years. “Coming to the realization that we are parting, that we had outgrown each other a little bit, that was shocking to people, but they’ve come to understand it. It’s been a love affair, and now we have an opportunity to come together one more time and celebrate and to be proud of what we’ve done.”

The local organizing body is going to literally send this event out with a bang. A fireworks show is planned after Sunday’s trophy presentation. At 4 p.m., the gates will open to allow the community to come in for free to watch the championship’s finish. There’s a sweepstakes giveaway planned among the many activities, with iPads, 40-inch TVs and a $5,000 grand prize.

Jerry Stahl, co-chairman of the local tournament foundation, is intent on making the most of this farewell.

“It’s unfortunate for Rochester that we’re losing this event, but things happen,” Stahl said. “We’ve had 38 wonderful years of interaction with the pros, with the community, and we’re going to miss it. Mike Whan is a terrific commissioner, and he did what he had to do. He had an opportunity to raise the financial level of the event for the players and the LPGA. How can you deny them that? You can’t. Sure, it will be emotional, no question, but we’re going to do our best to have a fabulous event.”