Bulle Rock puts LPGA on firmer turf

Move: The lure of the Harford County course was a factor in the decision to leave Wilmington.

Lpga Championship

June 08, 2005|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

It all came down to bread.

The bread that the Paterakis family has been making and supplying to McDonald's for 41 years, and, figuratively speaking, the bread the McDonald's LPGA Championship had been losing during its last two years at the DuPont Country Club in Wilmington, Del.

When the contributions the tournament earmarked for the Ronald McDonald Charities began to drop dramatically, falling last year some $600,000 to $1.6 million, co-chairmen Herb Lotman and Frank Quinn began seriously entertaining offers from venues outside the one where the event was played for 11 years.

"What happened in Wilmington was that we had been there a long, long time. The corporate sponsorship that was there in the beginning was not there in the end," Quinn said last month. "When the money is not there, then you've got decisions that you have to make."

The result is the LPGA Championship becoming the first women's major tournament in the Baltimore area since 1988. The $1.8 million tournament will be played at Bulle Rock in Havre de Grace beginning tomorrow, and running through Sunday.

According to Quinn, the decision to move the tournament began formulating two years ago when the event lost its Wilmington-based presenting sponsor, AIG.

Then, during tournament week last year, Lotman was reading an article in a local golf magazine about the relatively unknown gem of a course renowned designer Pete Dye built that opened in Harford County seven years ago. Lotman didn't realize the connection McDonald's had to Bulle Rock.

"Herb sees that Johnny [Paterakis] bought the golf course," said Quinn. "At the same time there are people from the South and other places that are wooing us, and offering us lots of money to move. We had a chance to move right down the street."

The Paterakis family, part of a consortium that bought Bulle Rock 20 months ago, made McDonald's a deal better than a Happy Meal: It would not charge for use of its five-star course and would renovate the infrastructure to make it worthy of a major championship setting.

Whether moving the tournament away from a tight-knit community and taking a more regional approach was a sound business decision will become evident this week, as will the question of whether the course itself lives up to the gospel that has spread throughout the golf community since it opened.

Over the 11 years that the tournament was played in Wilmington, attendance fluctuated, often due to the weather. The best year was in 1994 when the tournament first moved to DuPont and drew 102,800. Last year, when Friday's round was rained out, attendance dropped to a low of 75,000.

According to LPGA commissioner Ty Votaw, tournament officials have told him that advance ticket sales are up "over 400 percent" from last year.

"Whether that means a whole lot of people in Wilmington walked in the week of the tournament, I don't know," Votaw said earlier this year. "They wouldn't have made the move if they didn't think it was an upgrade, and we wouldn't have approved the move unless we thought it was a step up.

"How the region responds to the event, time will tell on that. Predictions are dangerous things, but everyone from the top of McDonald's to the players, everyone is excited about coming to this new venue because we've heard wonderful things about it."

Quinn believes that the regional approach will work for a variety of reasons: easier access off I-95 and parking at Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen than there was in Wilmington, where some had to park a half-hour away; also, the opportunity to draw from both Baltimore and Philadelphia.

The one potential glitch, this year, is the fact that the McDonald's LPGA Championship will have competition from the PGA Tour's Booz Allen Classic. This year Booz Allen will be played at famed Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, with a field that will include all the top names aside from Tiger Woods.

"This has always been our week, it's unfortunate that this year it also happens to be the week of the Booz Allen," said Quinn. "What other tours do we have no control over. We certainly hope that the people will want to come up to see Annika [Sorenstam] and the wonderful players we have here."

As happened when the tournament left Bethesda Country Club for DuPont in 1994, the players themselves have mixed feelings about leaving Wilmington, where the LPGA has staged a tournament every year since 1985. (The McDonald's Championship predated the LPGA Championship at DuPont.)

"I love that golf course," said Kelli Kuehne. "It's a beautiful golf course, very difficult. You don't go out and shoot 65 on that course, you shoot a couple under and you lap the field. That's what a major championship is supposed to be."

While she had warm feelings for the golf fans of Wilmington, the volunteers who worked at the tournament and the families who hosted many players for a number of years, veteran Rosie Jones is glad to be leaving DuPont.

"I think it was time for a change," Jones said earlier this year. "I don't think that venue ever fit us well, unfortunately. It didn't have the practice facility that we needed, I think the golf course was never in great shape, I don't think they put the money in it to hold a major championship."

Quinn said that about 65 percent of the volunteer staff that worked in Wilmington will be at Bulle Rock, and that those who could have kept the event at DuPont did little to change the downward spiral in terms of corporate and community support the past two years.

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