Walking around at the LPGA Safeway International last week, it became obvious why this tournament continues to grow in popularity and attendance year after year. In 2004 there were 90,000 fans through the gates; in 2005 it was 105,800; and based on the attendance the first two days of competition there’ll be a new record in 2006.
But this doesn’t come about with just a wave of a magic sand wedge. There is a reason all this happens and it forms a tight loop making this event so popular with players and fans. The field is always one of the best of the season due to the great organization of the tournament. (The fact that it’s a prelude to the first major of the year also contributes.) This year the top fifty money winners from 2005 are playing plus a number of the top rookies. Of course, a $1.4 million purse doesn’t hurt either. The venue is perfect: a great layout that is spectator-friendly and the magnificent scenery doesn’t hurt either. It’s comfortable to walk and most of the greens have an amphitheater effect making it effortless for crowds to view the action. The big bonus is that the front and back nines crisscross at a couple of key junctures making it simple for spectators to alter their direction. If fans pay attention to their pairing sheets, they can see the whole course and all the players in one day. All this entices fans to attend which makes the sponsors happy which makes the players show up.
And a couple of other thoughts on why this event does so well:
Phoenix in mid-March is the perfect time of year for this event. The weather is usually stellar (although this year the final round was delayed by a little cold and rain).
It’s snowbird time and this migratory fowl has yet to head north for the summer so the average age of the fans is probably in the neighborhood of 65.
Once the fans are in it’s most fascinating to observe which players they follow. The Canadian snowbird contingent dutifully encouraged Lori Kane. A large group of the gray-haired set took up their traveling residence with veterans like Juli Inkster (the eventual champion), Beth Daniel, Patty Sheehan, and Meg Mallon. And, of course, young Japanese star Ai Miyazato has a large delegation of press and fans trailing her around the course.
With all this in mind the best pairing of the first two rounds was Morgan Pressel, the 17-year old high school sensation, Ai Miyazato, the 20-year old Japanese golf goddess, and Sherri Turner, a mere 49 years old and a major championship winner. It was interesting to watch them interact for a couple of rounds.
It was also interesting to observe and chat with a few of the Japanese contingent following Miyazato. She has her own media entourage. Her every move is documented by television, radio, newspaper and magazine and a few other forms of communication which the Japanese are inventing or about to invent. The snag here is that this media has no sense of LPGA history and tradition. When asked by us concerning the identity and record of Sherri Turner, several of this deputation had no idea who she was never mind the fact that she is a major championship winner. For more on this issue request a copy of our monthly Eye On Golf newsletter.