Nobody’s going to be jumping into Poppie’s Pond come Sunday in Rancho Mirage, California.
It makes you wonder if there will be a tear in one of the eyes of the giant Dinah Shore statue alongside the 18th green at Mission Hills Country Club this week.
The ANA Inspiration takes pride in being the first major championship of the year.
Not the first women’s major but the first major – period.
This year, instead, it’s the first major we will miss, with the coronavirus pandemic shutting down this week’s events. Defending champion Jin Young Ko isn’t going to be able to check out her likeness in the new bronze plaque installed along the Walk of Champions leading to the 18th green. No LPGA pro was able to make that walk in practice this week, imagining what kind of dive she would make into Poppie’s Pond if she won.
The event isn’t going away, with the dates pushed back to Sept. 10-13, but this is a week that ought to make everyone in the game appreciate what the major really means to the sport and especially to the women’s game.
For LPGA legends, the championship will always carry a nickname, “The Dinah.”
That’s meant as no offense to All Nippon Airways but rather as a salute to the rich history ANA now presides over, as the caretaker of the 49-year-old championship’s precious traditions. The event became a major in 1983, but it seemed bigger than a major almost from its inception in 1972.
“It was instantly a great event,” said Marlene Hagge, one of the LPGA’s 13 founders. “It was so different from any other event we had ever played, including our national open. We were treated like we were special. That was new to us back then, because we were always second place in golf.”
The brainchild of Colgate-Palmolive president David Foster, the event made its debut at Mission Hills and has remained there ever since. It was instantly a celebration of everything Foster believed women’s golf should be. The $110,000 purse that first year was the richest in women’s golf, almost three times larger than the total prize money offered at the U.S. Women’s Open ($40,000). The Dinah wasn’t just nationally televised; it was promoted in national television commercials unlike any women’s golf tournament had ever been promoted, with LPGA pros in spots for various Colgate-Palmolive products in the months leading up to the event.
And maybe most importantly, the event was hosted by Dinah Shore, the top-charting female singer of her time, who went on to become a Hollywood actress and then host to her own TV show.
“She was such a glamorous woman,” said Judy Rankin, who won the event in 1976. “Both men and women really liked her.”
Shore brought all her Hollywood pals to the pro-am to help support the new event.
Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Johnny Mathis, James Garner, Glenn Campbell and Joe DiMaggio were among celebrities who turned out for the pro-ams in those early years.
“There were thousands and thousands of people in the galleries,” said Donna Caponi, who won the event in 1980. “There had to be at least 25,000 to 30,000 people watching us right from the start. They were bigger galleries than I played in front of when I won the U.S. Women’s Open (in 1969 and ’70). It was huge for women’s golf.”
Jane Blalock won the inaugural event.
“I had never played in front of galleries that large,” Blalock said. “You talk about putting women’s golf on the map; that one event single-handedly changed the face of women’s golf, the way the public perceived women’s golf. It’s hard to describe how big that event was and how important it was.”
The exposure female pros received skyrocketed.
Blalock was in Palmolive dishwashing commercials with “Madge,” an iconic marketing figure of the time who used Palmolive as a manicurist to soften her clients’ hands. Caponi did commercials for the company’s disposable diapers. Rankin, Laura Baugh, Sally Little and so many other LPGA pros starred in commercials that took their names and faces outside the golf niche and into living rooms in ways they had never experienced before.
“David gave us a place in everyday life,” Rankin said.
Foster launched female tour pros to another stratosphere in the marketing and endorsement world.
“We felt like we were finally on a world stage,” Little said.
The Dinah also created a trickle-down effect.
“After that event started, it seemed like galleries started getting bigger and bigger everywhere we went,” Caponi said. “It helped with the event being on TV right away. I don’t think more than four or five of our events were on TV at that time.”
Shore treated the LPGA pros like adopted daughters.
“She had a motherly way with all of us, looking after us, protecting us,” said Little, who won the event in 1982, the last year before it became a major.
That extended to Shore’s celebrity friends.
“We used to hang out with Bob Hope and his wife, Delores,” Little said. “We had dinner at their house every year.”
Foster wasn’t as visible as Shore, but he was equally important to the women. In fact, players from that era believe his impact on the LPGA isn’t as appreciated today as it should be. To their dismay, he isn’t as remembered as he ought to be.
“David was such an incredible visionary,” Little said. “He saw and respected our talent. He was way ahead of his time, because a lot of corporate people didn’t look at us that way.”
Foster didn’t just put women in Colgate commercials. He brought them aboard the company’s Ram Golf team with Tom Watson and other PGA Tour pros.
“Even at our national open, sometimes we got treated like they were doing us a favor,” Hagge said. “David never treated us like that. He always treated us like we were doing him a favor.”
Rankin believes Foster planted the seeds that LPGA commissioner Mike Whan nurtured into today’s global women’s game. Foster expanded Colgate’s reach, also sponsoring international events and a Colgate points series. He title sponsored the European Women’s Open in England and the Far East Women’s Championship, which moved around Asia and Australia. He put on a Colgate Triple Crown event as part of the points series.
“David Foster was a really significant player in women’s golf becoming a global sport,” Rankin said. “He took us to a lot of places we never envisioned playing. We saw the world thanks to him.”
Dinah Shore’s name stayed with the event when Nabisco came aboard as title sponsor in 1982, with the championship growing even more prestigious as a new major in ’83. Amy Alcott’s dive into the pond aside the 18th green after she won in 1988 gave the event its own spring tradition unlike any other.
“It’s always been an incredible tournament to win,” Little said.