May 24, 2009

Closing Up Shop

The final Corning Classic was more than a goodbye to a popular tournament. It also signaled a shifting landscape on the LPGA

Everything from the weather to the crowds helped give the Corning Classic a proper farewell.

Everything from the weather to the crowds helped give the Corning Classic a proper farewell.

CORNING, N.Y. -- The last Corning Classic had one of the most bizarre finishes in the 31-year history of the tournament, featuring a made 60-foot putt on the 18th green, a missed 4-footer on the same green about an hour later, a driven par-4 and a victory speech delivered more than two months late. But the memory the players will likely carry with them forever was the constant serenade of "Thanks" that carried them around Corning Country Club on Sunday.

The Corning Classic truly captures the spirit of the LPGA, an organization that throughout its 59-year history had relied on the love and support of small-town America. And there is no market smaller or more supportive than Corning, a town of fewer than 11,000 people that managed every year to turn out 850 volunteers and upwards of 50,000 spectators.

While the community was losing the Memorial Day event that kicked off the summer tourist season in the Finger Lakes region of New York, it felt like the LPGA was losing much more than Corning. With the passing pf the Corning Classic the tour was losing a massive block in its foundation, a vertebra in its backbone.

For as long as this tour has existed, places like Corning and Rochester and Toledo have been its heart and soul. And there is a sense now that is going away as the LPGA tries for bigger-market events with a more international accent.

While a half-dozen domestic stops have been lost in the last year, tournaments have been added in Thailand, Singapore and China. It's no secret the LPGA has cast an eye on the Middle East and investigated the possibility of taking a tournament to India, though that seems to have been ruled out. There will be a new tournament Southern California next year, but that merely makes up for the loss of the SBS Open in Hawaii.

Whether this change is the inevitable result of growth and a reflection of increasing globalization of the world's economy or whether it is an unwise abandonment of the LPGA's base is something only time will determine. It just seem sad -- and wrong -- to lose the Corning Classic.

The demise of the Corning Classic was the result of bad luck more than anything else, although the LPGA's new business plan was going to create financial challenges for the tournament down the road even if the economy had not tanked.

The tour came to town demanding new fees right at a time when about 15 sponsors of the Corning Classic were either reducing or eliminating their financial support of the tournament. The LPGA was willing to make short-term concessions to get through the Classic's option year -- 2010 -- but the owners of the event looked past that to 2011 and couldn't make the numbers work.

The Corning Classic couldn't have asked for a better sendoff. Twenty-eight of the top 30 players were on hand at an event that has not always attracted such a stellar field. And the sun beemed hot every day in a place where temperatures in the 30s can just as easily accompany rain in upstate New York's version of May.

The final Classic appeared as if it wanted to send its LPGA guests off into the unknown in a good mood. Not only were bars and restaurants offering going-away specials, but also Corning Country Club proved to be an accommodating host. In the first round alone, 84 players broke par.

Last year, it was 37 degrees on Thursday. This year it was 87. How easy did Corning play on Thursday? Michelle Wie shot a one-over-par 73 and was T-103. The torrid scoring kept up all week and it took a score of 21-under-par 267 by Yani Tseng to capture the final Steuben Glass trophy handed out by the Corning Classic.

How we got to that trophy presentation likely will be retold for years to come in the bars and locker rooms around Corning. First, Paula Creamer, a local favorite whose 91-year-old grandfather lives in nearby Ithaca and watched from the clubhouse balcony, stormed from four strokes off the pace after 54 holes and closed with four birdies in the last five holes.

The last of those birdies set of a roar likely heard back in Ithaca as she rolled a 60-foot birdie on the final green to get in the clubhouse at 20-under par. That score stood for more than an hour before Tseng, who birdied the 16th after driving the green 310 yards away, followed that with a birdie on 17 and a par on No. 18 to get in at 21 under.

When Soo-Yun Kang also birdied No. 16 to get to 21 under and, after a par on No. 17, split the final fairway with her tee shot on No. 18, a playoff seemed inevitable. How fitting it would be for the Corning Classic to refuse to go away by needing extra holes to determine a winner?

But Kang hit an indifferent approach shot that left her a 60-footer for birdie and the victory. But unlike Creamer she not only didn't make the putt but also left a 4-footer coming back. Standing near the scoring tent, Tseng couldn't watch, staring at the ground and holding her breath. When the crowd groaned, Tseng looked up and hugged her caddie in celebration.

Tseng later delivered a victory speech she had written for the MasterCard Classic in Mexico and had been carrying in her bag since March after letting that tournament slip away and finishing T-2.

Tseng won the last Corning Classic in the first one she had played. And Kang, who buried her face in her golf towel, soaking it with tears, after she signed her scorecard, will long remember not that this was the last Classic, but that is was one she let get away. That's the way golf is.

There have always been players who complained that Corning was not the easiest place to get to or that the practice range was too small or that the weather could be brutal. But no on ever complained about the way they were treated.

Corning embraced the LPGA and its players in a very special way, and now that is gone, a part of the tour' history is relegated to the history books. The most commonly used by players as they finished Sunday was "sad."

Was the Corning Classic the victim of progress it was unable to keep up with, the recession or shortsighted thinking on the part of the LPGA? It is likely a bit of all three. What time will determine are the percentages. There is enough blame to go around here, but eventually one of those factors will emerged as the real culprit. And the feeling exists that it won't take 31 years to know the answer.