Major championships are too important to contrive.
There’s more to creating major-championship tradition than jacking up the purse, renovating a course and draping the winner in her country’s flag after it came flapping from the heavens under a skydiver’s parachute.
It takes Sundays like the one Angela Stanford delivered at Evian this past week.
It was a big day for more than Stanford, who was such a feel-good story, breaking through at 40 to win her first major with her mother at home fighting a second bout with breast cancer.
It was a big day for LPGA commissioner Mike Whan and Evian Championship founder Franck Riboud.
The Evian Championship finally measured up.
That was no easy task this year, with the ANA Inspiration delivering high drama in Pernilla Lindberg’s playoff upset of Inbee Park, with Ariya Jutanugarn coming back from blowing a seven-shot lead to win the U.S. Women’s Open, with Sung Hyun Park outdueling So Yeon Ryu and Nasa Hataoka to win the KPMG Women’s PGA, and with Georgia Hall stirring hearts at the Ricoh Women’s British.
The pressure was on Evian to meet those lofty standards, and it did.
That made Sunday a great day for more than Stanford, Whan and Riboud.
It made it a great day for anyone who loves women’s golf.
If Sunday is what Whan and Riboud envisioned Evian to be as a major, we’re all seeing it better now. There was all the drama you want in a major, with the course playing firmer, faster and tougher than we’ve seen it since it was designated a major six years ago.
Yes, we can thank the cooperation of the weather for that, with a week under blue skies and a warm sun setting up conditions September rarely delivers this event. But it was more than that. The risk-reward nature of that course isn’t in the derring-do it takes to cut the corner of doglegs or lakes, or to go for par 5s in two. It’s in going after the hole locations on so many plateaus on severely undulating greens. It’s in pulling off those shots from uneven lies on the mountainside, challenges Golf Channel and major champion Karen Stupples says takes players out of their comfort zones in ways majors ought to do. And it is also in trying to get up and down from tough lies when a risk doesn’t pay off. The short game was a huge factor last week.
“You have to really pay attention on every single shot,” Stanford said.
There’s a danger inherent in the setup at Evian. There’s the danger of setting up goofy golf by trying too hard to toughen pins and speed up greens, but there was none of that Sunday at Evian. There was reasonable risk and reward in choosing to attack flags or play to the middle of greens. The LPGA staff looked as if it got the setup perfect, with Stanford making eagle at the 15th, double bogey at the 16th, birdie at the 17th and a par at the challenging 18th.
The fairway widths were ideal for a major, with the rough deeper than just about any other major in the women’s game, but still not unfairly penal.
The final pairing featured a big hitter (Sei Young Kim), a medium-range hitter (Amy Olson) and a short hitter (Mo Martin). That spoke volumes.
“You have to have everything going good on this golf course,” Hall said.
Sunday was good for women’s golf because Whan’s decision to declare Evian a fifth major was so controversial when he did it.
But here’s the thing about that. A fifth major absolutely works in women’s golf.
Kudos for Whan having the nerve to break tradition. The women’s game doesn’t benefit from all the big non-majors the men enjoy. There are no FedEx Cup Playoffs and no World Golf Championship events. The LPGA could use more big stages to draw larger audiences to the women’s game. A fifth major does that.
The question was whether Evian was worthy of being that fifth major.
With so much controversy dogging Evian’s start, with too much rainy-season weather leading to events twice being shortened to 54 holes, with record-low scoring coming too regularly, Evian wasn’t measuring up over its first five years as a major.
Evian defenders will argue the old Dinah Shore, now the ANA Inspiration, started the same way Evian did, with a valued, traditional event being elevated in status. That’s not a fair comparison. Players of a bygone era will tell you the Dinah Shore felt like a major long before it was designated one, that players knew it was a major before it became one. There wasn’t that same vibe when Whan upped the ante for Evian.
Whan warned us all he isn’t afraid of taking calculated risks as the LPGA’s leader, so many of which have paid off in his rebuilding the tour.
“I promise you I’ll be the commissioner with the most failures in my time, but it won’t be because I wasn’t willing to think bigger,” Whan once said. “I’m trying to encourage a team and a player body that says, 'Hey, let’s take some bigger swings so the upside for the next generation is bigger.'
“So, whether it’s playing a fifth major, or playing a tournament without a purse, or playing back-to-back major championships, I can’t be sure how things will work out, but they’re done for all the right reasons. Some of them won’t work, but you’ve got to be able to take chances. You have to be willing to fail.”
With Evian’s move to July and traditionally better weather next year, there’s now reinvigorated hope Whan’s fifth major will be the biggest risk rewarded in Evian history. Stanford’s unforgettable finish enhanced that hope.