EVIAN-LES-BAINS, FRANCE -- There are few spots on the far-flung global golf tour known as the LPGA that the players enjoy more than the Evian Masters. The accommodations high on the hill at the Hotel Royal and the Ermitage are luxurious, the views of Lake Geneva and the Alps are breathtaking, and the $3.2 million purse put up by Franck Riboud and his company, Danone, is rivaled only by the U.S. Women's Open.
Now there is one more reason to want to be in the field: Beginning in 2013 the Evian will be a major championship. The tour's only stop in France will join the Kraft Nabisco Championship, the U.S. Women's Open, the Wegmans LPGA Championship and the Ricoh Women's British Open in becoming the fifth major under a five-year rolling contract, it was announced Wednesday.
One of the few downsides of the Evian Masters -- which features fireworks, concerts, soccer games, an infamous beer garden, a champagne tent, quaint outdoor dining and a casino along with the views -- is the fact the Evian Golf Club is a short layout, a tick or two below being of major-championship quality. On Wednesday, Riboud and LPGA commissioner Mike Whan said that will be addressed through a $7.5 redesign by Steve Smyers that will begin immediately after this year's event ends on Sunday.
"The purse and the setting are major champion quality," Whan told Golf World before the news conference. "I told Franck I thought the missing ingredient was that I was not sure the course is a major championship venue." After the redesign, scheduled to finish in the spring of 2013, the final four holes will play into and around a spectator-friendly amphitheater. Certainly, the dramatic elevation changes offer the opportunity to create something special.
(Related: Should the Evian be a fifth major? We debate)
"This is a fantastic achievement for all of those who have supported us, first and foremost the players, our faithful sponsors, and the media," Riboud said of the event that joined the LPGA schedule in 2000. "For the region, for this golf resort, of the Evian Masters Organization teams, we are proud to be a part of golf history." The 2012 Evian will be played, despite the ongoing redesign work.
The decision to make the tournament a major championship was not without it's obstacles. First, there is the name. The Evian Masters will be known as The Evian beginning in 2013. Then there is the date. The Evian is currently the week before the Ricoh Women's British Open and it would not work to have consecutive majors. So the Evian will move to the second week of September, likely as the springboard to the tour's fall Asia swing. Next year, the Ricoh Women's British Open is in September because of the Olympic Games in London.
The LPGA also wanted network TV coverage on the weekend and financing was obtained to make that happen, Whan said. Those TV talks will have to take a backseat until after the networks and the PGA Tour figure out a new deal to replace the one that expires at the end of 2012. The issues involving the quality of the course will be aggressively attacked by Smyers.
"This is a unique opportunity to take a fantastic golf course and transition it into the model of future championship play," Smyers said. "Virtually every tee box, fairway, bunker and green structure will be redesigned to create a 'new' golf course, and major venue, that will challenge the best golfers in the world, and create a lasting legacy as the final LPGA major of the season."
The other obstacle was more perception that anything else and that was whether Whan had any concerns about creating a fifth major and moving beyond the traditional four thought of as the Grand Slam. "I don't now," Whan said when asked if he had reservations. "It took a while for me to kind of get over that, but when you look at the history of the LPGA, we have had one, two, three and four majors in a year and there are no asterisks."
There have been four majors since 1983 and as few as two as recently as 1978. "If you had asked me before I was commissioner if I though five majors was a good idea, I would have said no," Whan said. "The thing that changed is that I feel my mission now is to elevate the exposure of the best players in the world on the female side of the game."
Whan is in a difficult spot, trying to rebuild a schedule decimated by a bad economy and questionable business decisions by his predecessor that alienated many long-time business partners. The LPGA also had its two best players -- Annika Sorenstam and Lorena Ochoa -- retire barely more than a year apart. By embracing the Evian, Whan is rewarding a loyal supporter of women's golf.
"This is about a guy who has wanted this for sometime," Whan said about Riboud. "He's going to build a course for us, he's going to give us incredible TV exposure and he is in it for the long run."
Based on his track record, Riboud will run a tournament deserving of being called a major championship. That other question -- the one about how it will work to have five majors instead of four -- will be answered down the road. For now, a very good tournament just got better. And that's good news for the LPGA, its players and its fans.
-- Ron Sirak
(Photo: David Cannon/Getty Images)