LPGA's future at Bulle Rock no gimme

Major tournament, Havre de Grace host are at a crossroads


June 01, 2008|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Sun Reporter

Three years ago, the timing seemed perfect for the LPGA Championship and Bulle Rock Golf Course.

At the time, Annika Sorenstam was considered by many to be the most dominant female player in modern history and amateur phenom Michelle Wie was thought to be the game's next megastar. The upscale public course in Havre de Grace was on everybody's to-play list, a five-star gem hidden away in Harford County.

When the LPGA Championship returns there for a fourth year this week, the tour and the tournament venue appear to be approaching a crossroads.

With Sorenstam announcing last month that she will step away from competitive golf at the end of 2008, and Wie having all but disappeared amid a recurring wrist injury and possible burnout, the LPGA Tour will be looking for others, most notably current No. 1 Lorena Ochoa, to keep it on the radar.

"I think obviously when a player of Annika's caliber decides to retire ... it's going to be a big hole to fill," Karrie Webb, a former No. 1 player and Hall of Famer, said the day after the surprise announcement by Sorenstam, 37.

Her appearance at Bulle Rock, where she won her third straight LPGA Championship in 2005 by finishing three strokes ahead of Wie, will not only be one of the major stops on what essentially has turned into a six-month farewell tour.

It could also be a significant week in the future of the LPGA Championship.

With the tournament's charitable donations dropping to an all-time low of $1 million last year -- down $600,000 from its final year in Wilmington, Del., in 2004 -- and some players still questioning its out-of-the-way locale, Bulle Rock's foundation as a major championship site has not quite settled.

Though whispers have quieted about the LPGA moving the event elsewhere before the current five-year contract runs out after 2009, commissioner Carolyn Bivens said in an interview last week that talks have already begun about the direction the tournament will take starting in 2010.

"Herb Lotman and the McDonald's Group will be involved with the tournament for a very long time," Bivens said of the tournament's founding co-chairman and primary sponsor, which together have been involved with the LPGA since 1987 and have been running it as a major since 1994. "We have talked past 2009."

Baking a deal

Whether the LPGA Championship remains at Bulle Rock also revolves around the relationship between McDonald's and the Paterakis family, which has owned the course since 2003 and has been making buns for the iconic fast-food company for decades.

Family patriarch John Paterakis Sr. couldn't be reached for comment, but Frank Quinn, who along with Lotman has run the tournament, said last week that "I can't see us leaving Johnny." For good reason: Paterakis doesn't charge McDonald's to rent Bulle Rock.

Still, the possibility exists that changes could occur as part of a strategic plan that Bivens calls "Vision 2010." The LPGA's two major television contracts, with ESPN and The Golf Channel, will be up for renewal after next year, as will other tournament contracts besides the one at Bulle Rock.

"2010 is the first year we have the opportunity to reshape the course of the LPGA, how it's covered, the type of television contracts, sites, sponsors, the entire business model of the LPGA," said Bivens, who was hired in 2005 and recently signed a three-year extension through 2011.

Asked about the dramatic decline in charitable donations since coming to Bulle Rock, Bivens said, "It's not that it's unimportant, but the venue, the setup, the fans, the field, the buzz, the whole fan experience -- especially for a major -- is what's most important to the LPGA."

Bivens was quick to point out that the charitable donations from the LPGA Championship generated from the two pro-am events and other corporate involvement such as tents and on-course suites is "still substantial" and ranks among the top five on the LPGA Tour.

Quinn said that despite his disappointment in last year's charitable donations, he is "more realistically optimistic" about the tournament than he was when it left Wilmington. In other words, the loss of charitable donations was unavoidable considering the downturn in the economy.

"I think that when you raise a million bucks, the only people who think you're not as successful as you want to be are us," Quinn said. "You just keep going and try to make it better for the following year. [The corporate involvement is] about the same. With some nice crowds, we should do better."

Generation gap

The reactions from the players have been decidedly mixed, usually split along generational lines. While many of the younger players say they enjoy Bulle Rock and believe it will grow into a major championship setting, if it hasn't already, many veterans are less than enthusiastic.

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