Weather makes disaster of Evian's major debut


EVIAN-LES-BAINS, France – If you believe in golf gods, you couldn’t watch the Evian Championship’s start without wondering if they felt blasphemed by the event’s new designation as the LPGA’s fifth major.

It didn’t rain frogs, locusts never arrived and the pond in front of the 18th green didn’t turn to blood, but until Sunday’s merciful break in the weather this event sure felt like it was battling the wrath of cosmic forces.

Suzann Pettersen won with a game that was major championship caliber. She drove the ball fearlessly through narrow corridors, attacked flagsticks with surgical precision and erased her few mistakes with a brilliant short game and putting stroke.

No slight to Pettersen intended, but the Evian Resort Golf Club wasn’t major championship caliber.

It was no match for her game, nor equal to the standard she has raised her game to this summer. The Evian Championship didn’t look, feel or play like a major championship.

There’s no getting around that in any reasonable assessment of its debut.

This event was a few hundred square feet of tarp away from being a total disaster.

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If not for LPGA agronomist John Miller’s stroke of genius and Evian’s resourcefulness in somehow gathering all the tarp needed to cover the greens, Sunday’s finish might never have come off.

Half the golf course seemed to be marked as ground under repair with the property pockmarked with bare patches of turf. The greens were bumpy and even “bubbly” with all the saturation. They didn’t roll true. On Saturday, Pettersen said players were relying on some “lucky bounces” to hole putts. The greens were also inconsistent in how they reacted to shots with Paula Creamer wondering how to hit approaches that unpredictably bit or skipped. The bunkering looked gorgeous, but the faces of the bunker walls were too soft. Lydia Ko hit her tee shot at the fifth hole Saturday into the top of a steep face of a greenside bunker and watched it plug. With an impossible stance, with her ball barely visible, she showed her precocious skill somehow blasting to a far corner of the green.

There are drainage issues that need to be addressed.

There were decisions, too, that irked the guardians of the game’s traditions. There was the early decision on Friday night to shorten the event to 54 holes, a move that further challenged an event desperate for credibility as a true major championship test. Those entire 54 holes were played under lift, clean and place.

So much of this was due to the weather, to be sure. That’s going all the way back to last winter, one of the region’s most brutal, a winter that started with a surprisingly early snow fall and with a surprisingly late one in May. The spring was abnormally cold and wet. The summer was equally challenging with a scorching stretch of heat in August challenging healthy growth.

For architect Steve Smyers and the European Golf Design team he collaborated with, this was the equivalent of biblical plague. With a little more than 14 months to work, the most brilliant changes were doomed by impossible challenges to execution.

Overall, the design concept seemed to be embraced by the players, but it was all about course conditions.

You want more evidence of a cosmic conspiracy?

“This is normally a dry month,” LPGA commissioner Mike Whan said. “The average rainfall here in September is 3.5 inches. We got more than that in two days this week. There’s 25 to 30 percent less rain in September than July. It’s one of the reasons we moved the event to this month.”

It was all enough to make a greenskeeper shake his fist at the heavens and curse.

Maybe the problem was the LPGA’s decision as to where to juxtapose Evian’s debut as a major. The tour scheduled it as the major directly after the Women’s British Open at St. Andrews, the birthplace of golf. Maybe that was the last straw for the golf gods. You play a major on ground as revered as The Old Course and you risk the fate of the damned taking the next major to a golf course barely more than a year into a major redesign.

You can argue LPGA officials were victims of elements totally out of their control, but the decision to designate a fifth major was monumental. There was a gamble making Evian a major on such a freshly overhauled golf course. There was risk playing it as a major without first testing how the redesign stands up to less scrutiny as a regular tour event. There are reasons the USGA plays U.S. Amateurs at venues before playing U.S. Opens on them.

You can also argue the LPGA isn’t the USGA or the PGA Tour and the resources are limited. It’s true, and it’s unfair making the same comparisons, but it takes an apologist to overlook the LPGA played high-risk poker and lost by not waiting a year to play Evian as a major.

The failure this past week is rooted in that choice.

As harsh as all this is, there’s something else that any reasonable assessment must include. This event’s loaded with promise. The Evian Championship has an unlimited upside, untold potential as a shining new star in the LPGA’s schedule.

This might have been a painful start, but the Evian Championship has more possibilities as a newly imagined stage to showcase LPGA pros than any other event on the schedule.

Evian benefactor Franck Riboud’s ambitious vision and indefatigable will is an invaluable LPGA asset. So is his commitment to making the Evian Championship a world-class showcase. Whan saw that, and give him credit for the bold stroke in harnessing what Riboud brings to the utmost for his players. Rolex also saw it with its important commitment.

The LPGA isn’t the PGA Tour. The women’s tour was on wobbly legs a few years back when Whan was hired to revitalize a wilting product that had sagged to a scant 23 tournaments. Whan is building it back up. He has built it up to 28 events now with strong indications that next year it will top 30, including an exciting new International Crown competition, a sort of mini-Olympics. The PGA Tour has World Golf Championships now, also the FedEx Cup. The LPGA can use as many big events as it can create to showcase its deserving stars, and so a fifth major works for that tour. There are more good reasons for the women to play a fifth than bad ones.

The failure at Evian this last week was only in its premature start as a major.

“I don’t have a lot of corporate sponsors who talk about how things should look in 20 or 25 years,” Whan said. “We usually talk in three-, four- and five-year deals. Frank and Jacque {Bungert] talk in decades. There’s no doubt in my mind what this is going to feel like in 10, 15 and 20 years. It’s going to be the place to be.

“My father used to say you should surround yourself with people who think bigger than you do. Frank thinks bigger than I do. Sometimes he drives me crazy, sometimes I drive him crazy, but together I really believe we are going to create something great for women’s golf, long term.”

Here’s something that also needs to be said about Whan in any fair assessment of the week’s failure. When something isn’t working, he is the first to say so, and he’s the first to roll up his sleeves and try to fix it. In Riboud, Whan and LPGA senior vice president of tour operations Heather Daly-Donofrio, there’s a baseball bet a home run follows a strikeout.