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Major puts Locust Hill in spotlight

Kraig Kann, the LPGA’s chief communications officer since last August after 16 years at the Golf Channel, says Locust Hill Country Club fits the Wegmans LPGA Championship just fine.
"I think this golf course is perfectly suited to host this championship, and I think the players and everybody associated with the tour look forward to coming here every year," Kann said during a recent visit.
Locust Hill is under some scrutiny these days, in part because the current agreement for the Rochester tournament is in its final year, but also because of lopsided victories by Yani Tseng last year and Cristie Kerr in 2010. Both finished with 72-hole scores of 269. At 19 under par on the 6,534-yard course, they match the lowest ever for a women’s major. Tseng beat the field by 10 strokes, Kerr by 12.
Seven of the last eight winners at Locust Hill finished at least 11 under par.
Tournament co-chairman Gerald Stahl disagrees with those who suggest Locust Hill is not up to the challenge.
Stahl compared the performances of Tseng and Kerr to that of Tiger Woods, who won the 1997 Masters by 12 strokes with a 72-hole score of 270, 18 under par and the lowest score in the history of the most fabled event on the men’s tour.
"Two years in a row, we’ve had two fantastic golfers shoot lights out on this golf course, and that’s the way it is," Stahl said. "They had unbelievable weeks. When Tiger won the Masters by (12) shots, nobody said the course is no good, the course is too easy. They acknowledged that a great player had a great four days.
"I don’t think anybody should be critical of this golf course," he added. "I’ve seen some of the golf courses they play on-maybe not the majors, but some of the other ones-and this is far, far better."
Tseng, 23, joined the LPGA Tour in 2008. Her first victory was at the McDonald’s LPGA Championship in June of that year, and she went on to become Rookie of the Year. She was named the tour’s Player of the Year in 2010 and 2011.
Tseng led after each of the four rounds last year at Locust Hill, starting with a 6-under 66 on the opening day. She was one shot ahead after the first and second rounds and had a five-stroke advantage after three rounds.
"For me, it was fun," she said during a visit to Locust Hill last month. "I shot 19 under to win the tournament, and I’m happy with it. But I think there is a lot of room that you can improve on this golf course, especially the way you set up the course.
"We didn’t play all the way back, so the tees weren’t as tough as we saw at a major tournament. This year, if they can make it tougher, move the tees back a little bit, I think it’s going to be much harder."
Moving the tees back would make the course more challenging not simply because of the additional length, she said.
"It’s not that easy if some of the angles are different," she said. "If they move it back a little bit, you have to hit it long and straight on the fairway. That’s not easy. The course is really tight here. If they can make it longer and tougher, I think it’s going to make a huge difference."
Stahl said he did not expect that to happen this year.
"We are not talking about any basic changes on the golf course-recontouring fairways, changing tees," he said.
More difficult pin placements could be in the mix, however.
"They have a rules official who’s the setup person, who’s responsible for this tournament," Stahl said. "She comes two weeks before the event. She is the one that determines hole location.
"We’re going to try to twist her arm a little bit to find more difficult hole locations out there, which will challenge the player a little bit more."
Kerr, in the tournament field here for the sixth straight year, tied for third last year at 8 under par. She has been among the top 10 for the last five years at Locust Hill.
"This is one of my favorite tournaments and favorite golf courses," Kerr told the Rochester Business Journal prior to last year’s tournament.
"I’ve enjoyed it, obviously, being a major. I enjoyed it when it was a regular tournament. The (men’s) PGA Championship tends to rotate around. I think it would be great if Rochester had this tournament. I don’t know whether it will be long term at Locust Hill or not, but I think Rochester deserves to have an LPGA major."

The future
This is the last year of the current agreement between the LPGA and the Wegman Family Charitable Foundation to play the LPGA Championship at Locust Hill. Negotiations have been suspended until after this year’s event to eliminate distractions, officials say.
"I know the LPGA has had the thought that they want to move the tournament around," Stahl said. "That’ll be something we’ve got to talk about. I don’t know whether that’s a possibility or not."
Some LPGA players have voiced support for rotating venues.
"This has been awesome here this week, but I would like to see it rotate to some well-known championship courses," Juli Inkster said in a Golf Channel interview during the 2010 tournament. "I think it makes a difference. It adds credibility to the LPGA Championship, not that this does not. It’s been a great test this week, and it was set up well."
Angela Stanford echoed Inkster that year, saying: "Ideally, you would like to have Wegmans back and have the LPGA Championship rotate among three golf courses. I think it would be pretty cool to have it rotate among three courses in the Northeast."
William Strassburg, vice president at Wegmans Food Markets Inc., is leading the negotiations with the LPGA, Stahl said.
"We continue to talk to the LPGA," Stahl said. "Now we’ve kind of decided that it’s so late we’re probably going to put everything on the back burner until after the tournament is over. We have to start focusing on doing the absolute best we can for this year’s event."
Wegmans rescued the LPGA Championship after the McDonald’s LPGA ran aground in 2009 because of financial problems after five years in Havre de Grace, Md. The Rochester-based supermarket chain increased its investment to $2.5 million as the title sponsor of the LPGA Championship, up from $1.8 million as the sponsor of a non-major event.
Wegmans has been the primary sponsor since 1998 and has been involved in some fashion since shortly after the first local LPGA tournament in 1977.
Other sponsors are Toyota Motor Corp., Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc., Constellation Brands Inc., Diageo PLC, Heineken NV, Labatt USA LLC, the Polisseni Agency LLC, Time Warner Cable Inc. and Verizon Wireless Inc.
"Wegmans brings a lot of the corporate support to the tournament," Stahl said. "A lot of those people are Wegmans vendors.
"As they support the tournament, it helps us to get the other people, like Toyota to come in and be our car sponsor, or Verizon to come in. They want to be associated with the tournament. There’s where we truly have a little easier job, because it’s a major. People want to be associated with a major event."
The numbers for corporate sponsorships this year are about what they were last year, Stahl said.
Last year’s Wegmans LPGA drew 100,000 people, tournament officials estimate, with 1,900 community volunteers and an estimated $400,000 in proceeds donated to 14 charities in the Rochester area.
"Last year, attendance was down just a little bit," Stahl said. "Traditionally, we have over 100,000 spectators during the week.
"I’ve been to other LPGA tournaments where they give away the tickets and don’t get 30,000 people. That says a lot about Rochester and the commitment this community has to the game of golf."
The weeklong calendar of events generates $20 million annually for the Rochester economy, officials say.
"The LPGA values Rochester as much as you could possibly value a community," Kann said. "We’re not in the business of trying to lose communities, lose sponsors, lose designated majors or have relationships end. We’re all about growth and continuing to have those types of relationships.
"Everybody knows the contract is up. Both parties have been in contact and have agreed to let the tournament play itself out and then sit down immediately following the tournament, in late June or early July, and work on ways to grow the event, to grow the community support to take the event to the next level or whatever relationship we’re going to have beyond this year."
Kann, a member of the LPGA’s executive leadership team, anchored the network’s live coverage of selected men’s and women’s major tournaments during his 16 years at the Golf Channel.
He will attend the Wegmans LPGA this year for the first time.
"I’ve been covering golf for the better part of 20 years," he said. "I’ve never felt that a major is about a golf course. To me, it’s about the venue. And there’s a difference. The venue is the whole atmosphere. The venue is the course, plus the fans, plus parking. I mean, it’s everything. It’s all- encompassing.
"If it’s a great golf course for a major, the cream is going to rise to the top and you’re going to have a great champion. I’ve looked at the list of champions here, and I see no problem with it. You don’t have fluke winners. You have great champions. Some of the best names have won here.
Added Kann: "Is every venue perfect? No. But this venue has history, and this community has history. At the end of the day, the LPGA is about its relationship with Rochester and its history and love affair with golf. We want to showcase it in the best way possible."          

6/1/12 (c) 2012 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.


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