April 19, 2009

The Little Tournament That Could No Longer Can

The Corning Classic, a pillar on the LPGA since 1979, will discontinue after next month's tournament

Leta Lindley's title defense at next month's Corning Classic will mark the final staging of the event.

Leta Lindley's title defense at next month's Corning Classic will mark the final staging of the event.

The Corning Classic, the fifth-oldest LPGA tournament played in the same city, will end its run as a tour stop after the 31st staging of the event next month, yet another victim of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. The joint announcement by the tour and the tournament April 20 was the latest blow to the 2010 LPGA schedule, which is shaping up to be the most challenging since the tour was formed in 1950. This year's Corning Classic, which was first played in 1979, is May 21-24.

"This is a sad, sad day," says Gail Graham, a former player who is president of the Tournament Owners Association. "Corning has been such a staunch supporter of the LPGA. This loss is disappointing but understandable. Perhaps the tour has outgrown Corning, which is sad. As a player, I know how much fun it was to go there. When you have an event whose attendance for the week surpasses the population of the town, that is a cool thing."

The Corning Classic is a beloved stop on tour. The tiny, blue-collar town of about 10,000 in central New York embraces the LPGA as one of the community's biggest events of the year. Scoreboards are erected downtown and residents turn out in large numbers in an area that has no nearby professional or major college sports teams. The nearest town of more than 50,000 people is more than 70 miles away.

"For many years, people close to the LPGA have referred to the Corning Classic as part of the backbone of the LPGA," said Rob Neal of the Tournament Golf Foundation, which runs the LPGA events in Phoenix and Portland, Ore.

"The combination of its history and the spirit of the community in what was clearly the smallest market on the tour to turn out a product the tour could always be proud of was truly remarkable," says Neal, who is also a Board member of the Tournament Owners Association.

The LPGA came into 2009 down three events from last year, losing the Fields Open in Hawaii, the Ginn Tribute in South Carolina and the SemGroup Championship in Oklahoma. But soon after the season started, the Ginn Open in Orlando, Fla. folded and word came that Stanford Financial, title sponsor of the season-ending tour championship, was under investigation for fraud. The fate of that event is unclear, although there appears to be no chance Stanford will be the sponsor.

Also without sponsors for next year are the tour stop in Phoenix, the McDonald's LPGA Championship and what was the ADT Championship. The Bell Micro LPGA Classic in Alabama was pushed back from this fall to next spring. The SBS Open in Hawaii also ended its run this year and will be replaced in 2010 by an event in southern California sponsored by J Golf, a Korean cable TV network. The tour stop later this year in China is still in search of a venue and a sponsor, according to the LPGA website.

"This is definitely the closing of a chapter in the story of the LPGA," says Graham. "The tour has become such big business, but I hope it keeps a feel for what is happening in the economy. I don't expect there to be any more Cornings this year, but nothing surprises me right now. We have tournaments whose revenues are way, way down. And there are many tournaments whose contracts are up."

About a dozen tournaments are negotiating contracts for 2010 under pressure from the LPGA to pay more for sanctioning fees and television production costs, additional expenditures that could reach upward of $250,000 per event. The LPGA has already indicated it will back down on its plan to increase the scoreboard costs for tournaments, but the tour likely does not have a deep enough cash reserve to defray the other expenses.

Corning Country Club, the only venue the tournament has known, is a classic old Northeastern course. Built in 1919, it cuts through a spectacular vista of rolling hills and towering trees. The practice range is so small players take numbers like they are at a bakery waiting for their turn to hit.

Among the winners there are Hall of Famers Patty Sheehan, JoAnne Carner, Pat Bradley, Beth Daniel, Betsy King, Juli Inkster and Annika Sorenstam. The Corning Classic was held the week in 2003 when Sorenstam played the Bank of American Invitational on the PGA Tour and TV screens were set up on site so fans could watch her.

"This is a most difficult decision for all of us," said tournament president Jack Benjamin. "Everyone involved with the event is passionate about it and about the LPGA players who have been a part of it for more than three decades. But the realities are that the revenue opportunities in the marketplace will not support the components needed to successfully host a major event like this in our community moving forward."

"We are keenly aware of the challenges presented by today's economic environment and respect Corning's decision to do what it feels is right for its company and community," said LPGA Commissioner Carolyn F. Bivens. "We certainly are disappointed that the LPGA Corning Classic tradition will not continue beyond 2009, but we look forward to celebrating the tournament's legacy at the event next month."

Corning, a specialty glassmaker, announced in January it was laying off 3,500 workers because of a significant decline in demand for glass for television and computer monitors. The company, which also supplies glass for fiber optic cables, says orders for liquid crystal displays in flat-panel televisions and computer displays from its customers in Taiwan was especially dramatic. The 150-year-old company says revenue fell 30 percent in the final quarter of 2008.

The only LPGA tournaments around longer than the Corning Classic in the same city are the Kraft Nabisco Championship in Rancho Mirage, Calif., and the Safeway Classic in Portland, Ore. (both first played in 1972), the State Farm Classic in Springfield, Ill. (1976) and the Wegman's in Rochester, N.Y. (1977). The LPGA Championship, which has been played in several cities, began in 1955 and is in its last year of sponsorship by McDonald's.

The LPGA had no tournaments in three of the four weeks after the Kraft Nabisco Championship. And from the last week of May until the last week of August there are eight weeks in which there are no tournaments in the United States. The LPGA appears to be evolving into a very different entity, and nothing could be more symbolic of that change than the demise of the Corning Classic, the kind of tournament that has been the heart and soul of the tour.