The LPGA is missing its first major, but will give the ANA Inspiration a (very) warm welcome when it returns

March 30, 2020
ANA Inspiration - Preview Day 3

David Cannon

Eighties and sunny, the Weather Channel says, forecasting a typically gorgeous spring week in the California desert community of Rancho Mirage. Its sparkling crown jewel, the Dinah Shore Tournament Course at Mission Hills Country Club, is pristine, as green as green can be, set off by a sky as blue as blue can be, as blue, alas, as the mood. Cue the soundtrack, Dinah herself, singing “My Melancholy Baby.”

It is an atypical week in this desert, notwithstanding the weather. It is the week on which the first major championship of the year, the LPGA’s ANA Inspiration, was to have been played. But of course there is no golf, no sun-kissed crowd, no celebratory leap into Poppie’s Pond in the gloaming at the end of another memorable week.

On March 12, as the COVID-19 pandemic intensified, LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan announced that the ANA Inspiration had been postponed, a crushing blow to a tour that already had been rocked by cancellations of three of its Asian events.

A golf course without golf is, what, a good walk unspoiled? Mission Hills’ three courses, like others in the state, are closed. The only foot traffic is from residents of the community walking and enjoying the tranquility, sometimes with their dogs, occasionally with a single golf club and a ball.

“The golf course couldn’t have been in better condition and more ready for a major championship,” Michael Walker, Mission Hills Country Club general manager, said via telephone last week. “It’s just in phenomenal shape, the best condition it has been in in years.”

High praise for a course that this time of year generally is manicured as well as any this side of Augusta National. Meanwhile, the infrastructure—the grandstands around the 18th green and the corporate tents—was in place. The Dinah Course was all dressed up with nowhere to go.

“We stayed very positive all the way through,” Walker said. “There was a sense that they would do everything possible to make sure the tournament happened, until the point it became clearly obvious that there was no way we’d be able to do it from both a travel standpoint, or a gallery or fan standpoint. Several other events around the valley had already canceled, too.”

Among those was the renowned Coachella Music Festival, scheduled to begin five days after the ANA Inspiration ended. It was postponed two days before the LPGA made its decision.

“It felt like the normal buildup to the major,” Larry Bohannan, the golf writer for the Desert Sun, said, recalling the mood in early March. Bohannan has covered the tournament every year since 1987. “It felt like everybody was excited about getting this played.

“Then within a day or two, I thought, This isn’t going to happen, is it? I know talking to people at the tournament and at Mission Hills, they thought about every option, even up until the end, when I thought they probably were going to play with no gallery.”

Bohannan said there was at least something positive when Whan’s decision became public. “I thought it was key when the LPGA announced that the Founders Cup, the Kia Classic and the ANA were postponed,” Bohannan said. “They didn’t want a year without this particular tournament. It has more history and tradition than the rest of the LPGA tournaments combined, between the course and the great list of Hall of Fame winners.”

There’s also good news in the fact that the major championship already has been rescheduled for Sept. 10-13. The date has its own challenges, notably the fact that many of the snowbirds, those who winter in the desert and summer at home in northern states or Canada, will not yet have returned. The volunteer pool likely won’t be as deep and the crowds surely will be smaller.

No matter, the show will (hopefully) go on on a stage that won’t remotely resemble what it is in early April, save for the course routing.

“You’re changing surfaces from a winter grass [rye] surface to a summer grass [Bermuda],” Walker said. “We start our prep for the tournament in November when it comes out of over-seeding, and it takes five to six months to get it ready for a major championship. It’s the same this way. We’ve already started. We’ll primarily have a Bermuda surface. But I’m confident we can get it into major championship condition.”

As for the heat, well, there's always the heat, a popular topic in the desert. On Sept. 10, 2018, the temperature reached 108 degrees. Two years before that, 109. The record is 115, while the historic average high is 104 degrees.

But it’s a dry heat, the locals would say, teeing up a familiar rejoinder: So is an oven. Look at the bright side. A dip in Poppie's Pond will be a refreshing one. And whether the temperature is 90 degrees or 110, either way, given the circumstances, it promises to be the best tournament under the sun.