The best players in the women’s game are at Carnoustie for the Ricoh Women’s British Open this week.
The destination is notable given its history and its treacherous test.
It’s notable with the nature of major championship golf being redefined in the women’s game.
Last week, the Evian Masters was designated to become the LPGA’s fifth major beginning in 2013. There will be a new name, The Evian, new September dates and a new test on an $8 million redesign of Evian Masters Golf Club.
The news fuels debate with the women arriving at Carnoustie for the year’s final major on the Scottish course built in 1850, a links Old Tom Morris once helped redesign. Tommy Armour, Henry Cotton, Ben Hogan, Gary Player and Tom Watson all won the claret jug there.
The Evian Masters didn’t begin until 1994 and wasn’t an LPGA-sanctioned event until 2000. With the turn to Carnoustie, this week feels like a major in every regard. It sparks conversation about what really constitutes a major championship.
How much should history and tradition dictate in the designation? Can you really just issue a proclamation making an event a major? And what about five majors in a year? Is it blaspheme or a brilliant stroke?
Know this: If there are golf gods, LPGA commissioner Mike Whan didn’t want to offend them, and that’s why the decision to upgrade The Evian didn’t come easily or quickly.
“I grinded over this a long time,” Whan told GolfChannel.com.
Whan said Evian executive Franck Riboud first approached him about turning the Evian Masters into a major a full month before he officially assumed the commissioner’s job more than a year-and-a-half ago. Riboud had been pushing even before that, but Whan knew the notion of five majors would irritate some golf devotees. He knew the crowning of a major champion at Evian Masters Golf Club would come with questions about the benign nature of the test it offers.
“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,” Whan said. “I’m really respectful of the game’s traditions. I didn’t want to mess with tradition without walking through this.”
So Whan sought out some of the game’s icons and dignitaries to seek their opinions. He cornered former PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman at the World Golf Hall of Fame induction ceremony. He called on former LPGA commissioner Charlie Mechem. He quizzed Hall of Famers Annika Sorenstam, Nancy Lopez, Louise Suggs, Beth Daniel and Karrie Webb. He sought out today’s top players, including Paula Creamer and Suzann Pettersen.
“If you dig, you’ll probably find 30 people I turned to,” Whan said. “I told them, ‘Hey, this is where I’m going. Am I nuts?’ I was looking for somebody to say you have completely flipped your lid.”
Whan said he didn’t hear that.
“I remember telling my wife that each of these conversations is giving me momentum, not fear,” Whan said. “I think I had some fear because I didn’t want to be the guy who messed with tradition.”
Whan knew he would get a no-nonsense answer from Suggs, one of the LPGA’s founders.
“Louise said, ‘Hey, Mike, if somebody is going to put you on a grand stage with a big purse and make a big deal of the women’s game, that’s your job,’” Whan said. “I thought that was the best synopsis.”
Lopez also liked the idea.
“Five majors is definitely a plus, I think,” Lopez said. “The TV time, the attention, we need that.”
About messing with tradition, Whan learned the LPGA’s unique history factored into perceptions. The women’s game doesn’t have the fixed nature of major championship history. It’s been all over the place. When the LPGA was created in 1950, there were just three majors. For 10 years over the late ‘60s and ‘70s, there were only two majors. The Women’s Western, the Titleholders and the du Maurier Classic have come and gone. The Kraft Nabisco’s only been a major since 1983, the Women’s British Open since 2001.
Ask most golf fans, and they can’t tell you who holds the most major championship triumphs in the women’s game. Patty Berg’s record 15 isn’t as revered a feat as Jack Nicklaus’ 18.
With the women’s schedule having shrunk the last three years, Whan also didn’t see the harm in offering players another chance to earn two points toward the 27 required to earn Hall of Fame induction.
So Whan presented Riboud and Evian tournament director Jacques Bungert a list of provisions the tour wanted met before it would designate Evian a major.
“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,” Whan said. “To [Evian’s] credit, over the last year, we knocked all 10 off the list.”
A golf course redesign was on high the list. Evian secured architect Steve Smyers for the $8 million renovation at the LPGA’s recommendation. The LPGA also required securing of financing for network TV coverage. Plus, the tournament dates had to be moved to September.
The course redesigns looms as vital. If The Evian’s going to be a legitimate fifth major, the test has to live up to the billing.
“I know Steve Smyers will take it seriously, and hopefully he’ll do a good job,” Daniel said. “I totally understand Franck and Jacques wanted this to be a fifth major, and now they understand they have to make changes to the golf course, and they’re willing to do it.”
In the final analysis, Whan agreed to designate Evian as a fifth major to elevate LPGA exposure.
“After doing the job a couple years, you realize the most important thing you can do is give the best players in the world the grandest stages you can,” Whan said. “We don’t get 12 hours of network TV every week. The coverage we get at a major, that’s really our big moments. It’s an opportunity to showcase the best players in the world on a big stage. We really thought we should take advantage of it.”
And that’s how a fifth major was born.