RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. – They don’t drape their champions in green jackets here.
They cloak them in white robes to keep them warm after their triumphant leaps into Poppie’s Pond.
The Kraft Nabisco Championship may not be the Masters, but the traditions and history built over time have created a familiarity that most parallels it in the women’s game.
Mission Hills Country Club may not be Augusta National, but like the iconic course Bobby Jones built in Georgia, the Dinah Shore Course is now built on more than soil. It’s built on a foundation of memories.
With snow-capped mountains as a majestic backdrop, every single player in this field of 111 will tee it up Thursday dreaming of making that victor’s leap into the water beside the 18th green. It’s a tradition Hall of Famer Amy Alcott started when she leaped into the pond after winning in ’88.
“You can’t even understate it,” Rolex world No. 3 Stacy Lewis said of the special history for women here. “For me, when I think of a major, I think of this event. I think of the tradition, the history.”
There’s more than a trophy and a big check for the winner here. There’s the palpable feeling of golf immortality that goes with them. Every player who reaches the 18th green here gets there via the Walk of Champions, a pathway where every winner is celebrated with a plaque. From the first winner, Jane Blalock in 1972, to the last, Inbee Park a year ago, they’re remembered on a wall on the walk.
The finish is a celebration of women’s golf.
“It’s the place everybody can’t wait to go to,” said Karen Stupples, winner of the ’04 Women’s British Open. “You play your practice rounds, and you want to make that jump. Everybody plays the practice rounds with a view toward Poppie’s Pond. It’s a really special place for the players.”
The plaques along the Walk of Champions speak volumes to the test the Dinah Shore Course offers. Mickey Wright, Kathy Whitworth, Pat Bradley, Nancy Lopez, Judy Rankin, Donna Caponi, Amy Alcott, Betsy King, Juli Inkster, Annika Sorenstam and Karrie Webb are among the Hall of Famers who have won here.
“The tournament brings back so many memories,” Anna Nordqvist said. “Playing the 18th today in the pro-am, I remembered Karrie Webb’s shot [holing out for eagle in ‘06]. There have been so many good jumps in that pond. All the memories, I want to make my own memories there.”
Dinah Shore, a popular singer in the Big Band era of ‘40s and ‘50s who also became an actress, founded the event and was its host. The tournament started in 1972 as the Colgate-Dinah Shore Winner’s Circle. Shore hosted it until her death in ’94. Her name stayed on the event until 2000, and her presence still lingers here. A statue of her sits at the end of the Walk of Champions.
“The Dinah” is what tour veterans still call the championship today.
Kraft Nabisco is departing as the title sponsor after this year’s event. The company has been associated with the championship since 1982. While there is always some angst when a title sponsor leaves, LPGA commissioner Mike Whan has stated in strong terms that he intends to keep the event here. The LPGA takes control of it going forward.
“It definitely needs to stay here,” Webb said. “There's too much history and too much tradition here. If the LPGA lacks anything, in any other events, it's that.”
Rankin, who won this event in ’76, is confident the history and traditions will sell themselves.
“Corporately, there's this sense that everything will be OK, because it's such a magnificent product in women’s golf,” Rankin said. “It is the one product that people around the country who are fans of golf know. They know the golf course, they know the drill, and they know that it is prior to the Masters. It has a familiarity like Augusta does, where people know the holes that are coming up, and this, that and the other.”
Nordqvist has only played this event since 2010, but she says she knows the course “off the top of my head.” She knows the mysterious “Indio effect,” the force that pulls putts toward the city of Indio in the Coachella Valley.
There’s more to the traditions than what happens on the course. There’s the Champions Dinner on Monday night and equally meaningful casual dinners at favorite spots players return to every year.
Webb’s favorite stop is LG’s Steakhouse.
“I always take whoever I have in town, my caddie, my physio, my whole team,” Webb said. “We have a nice steak dinner and a nice bottle of wine.”
Inkster won here twice. She said she has come to treasure the event more with every passing year.
“This is probably my favorite tournament of the whole year,” Inkster said. “It's just a special week.”