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Together again

Kingsmill and LPGA are reunited after a two-year absence

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Print this page by Art Utley

Palpable excitement fueled the burst of tweets from Ladies Professional Golf Association Tour players.

The occasion? The LPGA’s announcement in January that Kingsmill Resort was on the 2012 tournament schedule after a two-year absence.
Kingsmill, then owned by beer brewer Anheuser-Busch, played host to the Michelob ULTRA Open from 2003 to 2009. LPGA Tour players voted the tournament the “Best Overall Event on Tour” leading into the 2008 season.

The perfect pairing came to an end when the contract in place ran out after the 2009 tournament. The national economy was reeling, and Anheuser-Busch had been purchased in July 2008 by Belgian brewing giant InBev. The LPGA was in bad shape because of defecting sponsors and vanishing tournaments.

Professional golf didn’t disappear completely from the Virginia landscape, thanks to the LPGA’s developmental Futures Tour, which began a tournament at Richmond Country Club in 2008. Now known as the Eagle Classic, the event, which picked up Eagle Construction as the title sponsor for a three-year run last year, has marketed itself as the only professional golf in Virginia the past two years.

Kingsmill played host to a PGA Tour tournament for 22 years, but when the men’s Tour demanded a higher purse and more sponsor commitment after the 2002 event, Anheuser-Busch cast its lot with the LPGA.  Men’s Nationwide Tour tournaments in Richmond (2008) and Virginia Beach (2006) folded for lack of title sponsors.

The LPGA players missed coming to Kingsmill, so the response to the tournament’s return came as no surprise.
Four-time LPGA winner Christina Kim was “stoked.”

Angela Stanford was “jacked.”

Karen Stupples praised LPGA commissioner Michael Whan, who has reversed the Tour’s decline and propelled it forward since replacing Carolyn Bivens in October 2009. Stupples’ tweeted: “Got to say Mike Whan and rest of LPGA staff get a huge high five for the [2012] schedule.”

The $1.3 million purse Kingsmill Championship, to be played Sept. 6-9, helped boost the LPGA schedule to 27 tournaments for 2012, up from 23 in 2011.

The globe-trotting Tour opened its schedule with a new tournament in Australia. Then, it was on to Thailand and Singapore. Later in the season are stops in Canada (twice), France, England, Malaysia, South Korea, Taiwan, Japan and Mexico.

The overall purse of $47 million is up $6.6 million from 2010, and Golf Channel’s weekend coverage of the 18 North American tournaments will be live.

The tournament’s return was welcomed by the Williamsburg area tourism industry, which has been hurt in recent years by a declining number of visitors at local attractions. Previous tournaments had an estimated economic impact of $6 million to $8 million.

Whan, a former golf and hockey equipment marketing executive, is winning praise for breathing new life into the LPGA. He impressed Dave Hartvigsen, vice president of sales and marketing for Colorado-based Xanterra Parks and Resorts, which acquired Kingsmill in August 2010. “He’s a very bright, energetic, driven man loaded with optimism. He’s got so many ideas,” says Hartvigsen. “He’s always looking for ways to innovate and create new and exciting things for the LPGA. I can tell you he’s thrilled coming back [to Kingsmill].”

Once the 2009 Michelob ULTRA Open tournament concluded with Christie Kerr winning the event for the second time, the tournament staff and the multitude of volunteers went fallow.

Eight days after the announcement that Kingsmill was back on the schedule, Wayne Nooe, the tournament director who is vice president of golf and club operations at Kingsmill, called the first meeting of the tournament’s former volunteer leaders.

“We call that level our coordinators, and we have 100 percent of those back from 2009,” Nooe says, “About half the coordinators had all their committee chairmen back from 2009. … Getting the wheels rolling again might take a little longer, but it’s the same golf course, the same resort. We can provide the same amenities, the same hospitality.”

Pictures of past champions and other stars of the LPGA tournament adorn the walls of Kingsmill’s golf clubhouse.

The list of past champions for the Michelob ULTRA Open reflects the status the LPGA tournament held. Grace Park won the inaugural event in 2003 with a par putt on the 72nd hole. South Korean Se Ri Pak’s victory in 2004 qualified her for the LPGA Hall of Fame. Pak’s influence is clear today: 42 South Korean players are active on the Tour.

Kerr, the top-ranked American on the Tour, won her first title in 2005. Hall of Famer Karrie Webb was victorious in 2006, and Norway’s Suzann Pettersen recorded her first LPGA victory in 2007.

Annika Sorenstam, a Hall of Famer and perhaps the greatest women’s player of all time, won in 2008 in record fashion. She had struggled on Kingsmill’s River Course greens in previous years, missing the cut in 2006. Her caddie, Terry McNamara, arrived at the tournament a day early in 2008 and spent extra time figuring out the greens.

Two days after winning at Kingsmill, her 72nd LPGA victory, Sorenstam announced she was giving up competitive golf.

Xanterra’s Hartvigsen, a low handicapper and past medalist in the Utah State Amateur, knew of Kingsmill’s reputation. He had played its River and Plantation courses more than a decade ago. During the due diligence process for acquiring Kingsmill, he and fellow Xanterra executives learned more from Nooe about the heritage of the resort and the legacy it had of hosting professional golf tournaments.

“One of the things we talked about at length was the tournament, the importance of the tournament to Kingsmill and what it had meant to this property over time,” Nooe said. “Golf really helped put Kingsmill on the map from a residential and resort standpoint.”

Hartvigsen began talking with the LPGA during the month of the acquisition. He doesn’t remember who called whom first.

“I think there is a huge amount of pent-up demand on the players’ side and from the spectators and volunteers. I think everyone is full of anticipation,” Hartvigsen says. “There are a host of great young players on the LPGA that are very exciting to watch, and we want to be a part of that.”

Who are some of those players?

After Sorenstam retired, Mexico’s Lorena Ochoa took over the mantle as the LPGA’s top player, but she, too, has retired. Taiwan’s Yani Tseng, 23, is ranked No. 1 in the world. She was the player of the year after finishing at the top of the LPGA money list last year and winning seven tournaments. Tseng is the youngest golfer, male or female, to win five major championships.

Tseng finished 16th and 20th in her visits to Kingsmill in 2008 and 2009, but she has won a tournament in Williamsburg. As a teenager, she defeated Michelle Wie in the final of the 2004 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links tournament held at Colonial Williamsburg’s Golden Horseshoe Green course. Wie received a sponsor’s exemption to the Michelob ULTRA Open earlier that year.

Pettersen is No. 2 in the world rankings. Rounding out the top 10 are South Koreans Na Yeon Choi (No. 3), Sun Ju Ahn (No. 6), Jiyai Shin (No. 7), and I.K. Kim (No. 8) and Americans Kerr, (No. 4), Paula Creamer (No. 5), Stacy Lewis (No. 9) and Brittany Lincicome (No. 10).

The LPGA tournament fields at Kingsmill always were among the strongest each year, and there is no reason to think the field will be weaker in September even though the purse has dipped from $2.2 million to $1.3 million.

Hartvigsen expects the commitment between Kingsmill and the LPGA to be long term. “I told them I didn’t see any point in developing something that might be a one- or two-year deal,” he says. “We only have one interest and that is the tournament comes back here for a long time.”

The September schedule for this year’s tournament is temporary. The date, one week before the Women’s British Open in England, was the best available when the deal was struck. The Kingsmill Championship will move to early May (before Mother’s Day) in 2013 and beyond. The previous tournament concluded on Mother’s Day.

The schedule shift will result in Kingsmill holding two tournaments in eight months. Nooe, however, sees the situation at as a marketing opportunity for approaching vendors, sponsors and volunteers. The September date is a good fit for Kingsmill because the resort usually isn’t busy.

“This tournament is about the community. … There is a great sense of pride in the greater Williamsburg area and this part of Virginia in total,” Hartvigsen says. “People are proud to host this tournament. I can tell they missed that the past couple of years. … This is the area’s tournament as much as it is Kingsmill’s. There’s no question about that.” 

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