March 31, 2009

Tried And True

On an LPGA Tour in which change has been the norm, Mission Hills Country Club, home of the Kraft Nabisco Championship, has been a blessed constant

As Lorena Ochoa has already discovered, Mission Hills Country Club is conducive for dramatic finishes

As Lorena Ochoa has already discovered, Mission Hills Country Club is conducive for dramatic finishes

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. -- Tournaments come and go in golf, as do sponsors and venues. That's especially the case for the LPGA, which has spent 59 years patching holes in a sometimes leaky bucket and still surviving as the oldest and most-successful women's professional sports organization. But if there is a cornerstone in the foundation of this tour -- and there is -- it is the Dinah Shore Tournament Course at Mission Hills Country Club, scene of an LPGA event since 1972, making it the current longest continuous venue on tour.

The list of winners at the Kraft Nabisco Championship, which became a major in 1983, a year after Nabisco came on as the title sponsor and returned the tour to four majors after 15-years of only three, is pretty much all the affirmation the course needs as a top-tier venue. Of the 37 times this event has been contested, 21 titles have been captured by players now in the LPGA Hall of Fame.

The second Colgate Dinah Shore -- and there are still veterans who call the tournament "The Dinah" -- was won by Mickey Wright and the sixth winner was Kathy Whitworth. Those are the top two winners in tour history. They were followed by the likes of Amy Alcott, Betsy King, Juli Inkster, Patty Sheehan, Karrie Webb, Annika Sorenstam and, last year, Lorena Ochoa. Fluke winners are far and few between at Mission Hills. It identifies champions.

Just as rare are boring finishes. In 1987, King holed out for birdie from a bunker on No. 16 to hold off Sheehan. The next year, Alcott was the victor and touched off what has become a tradition when she jumped into the pond by the 18th green after winning. Three years later, when Alcott won again, Dinah joined her in the pond plunge. Sorenstam's mother, Morgan Pressel's grandmother and caddie Dave Brooker, who has made the dive with both Ochoa and Grace Park, are among others to join players in the water.

More recently, Webb holed out for eagle with a wedge from 116 yards on No. 18 in 2006 to force a playoff with Ochoa, which was won by Webb. That was the same year 16-year-old Michelle Wie could have joined the playoff by making an up-and-down from the fringe on No. 18, about 25 feet from the hole, but chose to chip instead of putt and knocked it 12 feet past, missing the come backer. Wie returns to the Kraft Nabisco this year for the first time since then, missing '07 because of injury and '08 because she did not qualify.

In 2004, 17-year-old Aree Song laced a 7-wood from 210 yards on No. 18 and rolled in a 30-foot eagle putt to force Park to make a six-foot birdie for the dramatic victory. And it was with a victory at the Kraft Nabisco in 2001 that Sorenstam began one of the great streaks in the history. Over the next five years, she won 43 of 104 LPGA events and captured eight major championships over six years. In 2002, Sorenstam memorably won the Dinah wearing red shoes on Sunday -- shoes made by Nike, which did not put a smile on the face of her equipment sponsor, Callaway.

A big part of what makes the Dinah Shore Tournament course special is the 18th hole. A par-5 with an island green, the closing hole can play 531 yards or 485 yards. The recent tradition has been to play from the up tee on Sunday and tempt players into going for the green in two. The statue of Dinah Shore that welcomes players to the green as well as Poppy's Pond -- named for long-time tournament director Terry Wilcox -- are the signature of both the hole and the course.

But the difficulty of the finish begins well before the 18th hole. After the 495-yard par-5 11th there are no easy opportunities coming in. Just ask Suzann Pettersen, who was four stokes ahead with four holes to play in 2007 then finished bogey, double bogey, bogey, par to tie for second, one stroke behind Pressel, who won the tournament while hitting balls on the practice range and watching the finish on the giant TV screen there.

In 1994, Laura Davies -- then the longest hitter on tour -- came to the 18th hole with a one-stroke lead. But after driving into the trees, laying up and then leaving herself a 100-foot birdie putt, she three-putted for bogey. That gave Donna Andrews the title with a final-hole birdie and a two-stroke swing on No. 18.

While there have been years when unusually harsh winters have left the fairways spotty and the greens bumpy, Mission Hills is in great shape more often than not. That's certainly the case this year. The greens are like velvet, the fairways lush and with the rough relatively scaled back, it should be an inviting venue for the bombers on tour to let out the shaft. That's good news for Ochoa, Webb, Pettersen and Wie.

There is another thing special about Mission Hills: the fans. They are among the most knowledgeable and energetic on tour, in part because they are so familiar with the course. The 18th ends into a tunnel of noise with bleachers lining the right side of the green. Last year, when Ochoa won, a mariachi band magically appeared to lay down a sound track of Mexican music for the most massive pond plunge ever -- at least two dozen Ochoa friends and family.

Given the recent history here -- the last seven Kraft Nabisco Championships have included four one-stroke victories and a playoff -- chances are good the tournament will be decided on the 18th green again -- or in the pond that surrounds it. One thing beyond all doubt is that the winner will end up celebrating in that pond. That's part of the tradition that has evolved over the years at Mission Hills, the one venue that refuses to slip though that leaky bucket of time on the LPGA.