April 22, 2009

Somber Sign Of The Times

The demise of a once vibrant golf tournament reverberates beyond a single community

The lively scene at the Corning Classic, such as this one for Leta Lindley's win last season, will soon be a memory.

The lively scene at the Corning Classic, such as this one for Leta Lindley's win last season, will soon be a memory.

This week's issue of Golf World contains great stories by Bob Verdi on Brian Gay's runaway 10-shot win at the Verizon Heritage, Bill Fields on Nick Price's long-awaited first victory on the Champions Tour, and Jim Moriarty on the trials of Steven Bowditch, a young PGA and Nationwide Tour player from Australia who is trying to rebuild his career after a four-year battle with clinical depression.

But the story in this week's magazine which interests me the most -- and which I don't want you to overlook -- is executive editor Ron Sirak's report on the demise of the LPGA's Corning Classic.

The Corning Classic has been a 31-year fixture on the LPGA Tour (making it the third longest running event, at the same venue, in women's golf), but on Monday Corning officials announced this year's tournament, May 21-24, would be the last.

Why? Lots of reasons.

The economy, certainly. Corning, N.Y., located in the middle of the upper portion of the state, population about 10,000 -- is a company town. Corning Inc. is a big manufacturer of glass and ceramic products, and business is tough. Corning recently laid off 3,500 workers.

The expense of running an LPGA tournament, probably. According to local reports in Corning, the cost of the tournament had gone from $200,000 to $3 million in the last three decades. Tournament officials have been unable to attract additional sponsors to help with the steadily rising costs.

The support of the local community, surprisingly. Jack Benjamin, president of the board that runs the Corning Classic, told local reporters the number of tournament volunteers has declined steadily in recent years, and so has attendance. That doesn't sound like the Corning Classic I remember visiting 18 years ago, where the traditional Tuesday night pot-luck spaghetti dinner for players and locals (a Corning writer told me) had become one of the highlights of the year in the little town. But a lot can change in 18 years.

The quaintness of the setting, I guess. The president of the LPGA's Tournament Owners Association, Gail Graham (a former player), told Sirak, "Perhaps the tour has outgrown Corning, which is sad."

I would feel a lot more confident about Graham's first point -- about the LPGA outgrowing Corning -- if there was another tournament in some big metropolis waiting to take its place. I suppose we won't know for sure about that until the 2010 LPGA schedule is released, but right now I'm skeptical. Since the start of the season, the LPGA has lost events in Hawaii and Orlando, and is dealing with serious title sponsor issues in Phoenix, Houston and at its premier event, the LPGA Championship. If you ask me, the LPGA isn't outgrowing events, it's hemorrhaging them.

The point Graham makes that I wholeheartedly agree with, however, is her second one. The loss of the Corning Classic is a sad outcome -- sad for the LPGA and its players, sad for the citizens and fans in Corning, sad for anyone who appreciates the role events like the Corning Classic play in the world of professional golf, but particularly in the world of the LPGA Tour.

I am the editor-in-chief of Golf World, but I was also once its LPGA beat writer -- back in the early 1990s, when I first joined the magazine. In those four or five years I went to more than 90 tournaments, including ones in places like New York, Boston, Los Angeles and Washington D.C. But the most successful events I attended, the happiest ones, the ones that consistently drew the biggest and most loyal galleries, and where the tournament officials and the players had the strongest attachment to each other, weren't the stops in the big cities. They were the ones in places like Springfield, Ill., and Youngstown, Ohio. Tallahassee, Fla., and Rochester, N.Y. Hershey, Pa. and Nashville, Tenn. Wilmington, Del., and Toledo, Ohio.

And, most especially, Corning, N.Y.

A lot of those tournaments are now gone. Meanwhile, the LPGA goes to a lot of places around the world now that it didn't when I was part of the traveling circus - countries such as France, China, Singapore, Thailand. I realize that in today's business world it's all about "going global" and "growing the brand," and it's probably exciting for the players to go to places like Evians-les-Bains and Shanghai. But -- at the risk of sounding like a dinosaur -- I always believed (and continue to believe) that the bedrock of the LPGA tour was the communities where women's golf was the biggest show of the year.

Corning was one of those places.