"I know the tour would love to be able to take what they have here in Rochester to a bigger city," says Linda Hampton, tournament director for the Wegmans LPGA Championship. "They’d do that in a heartbeat." (Photo by Kimberly McKinzie)
For 34 years, Linda Hampton has been the glue that has held together the LPGA tournaments in Rochester. The thing that amazes people about her is how she makes it all look effortless. Her cool, calm demeanor in overseeing more than 1,000 volunteers and virtually every aspect of the Wegmans LPGA Championship, which will be staged for a final time next week at Monroe Golf Club, makes you believe that pulling off this event is as easy as a gimme putt.
“You know how you see a duck moving so smoothly across a river or a lake?” LPGA Hall of Famer Kathy Whitworth once explained when asked about Hampton. “Well, beneath the water and out of your sight, that duck is paddling its feet like there’s no tomorrow. Same way with Linda. She makes it seem like this is so easy, but it’s not. Behind the scenes she’s paddling like hell to make this thing come off so smoothly.”
Hampton credits her staff and the legion of loyal volunteers and sponsors for having made Rochester one of the best-supported stops on the LPGA Tour. And while it’s true that it has taken a village to achieve that goal through the years, it also has taken an even-keeled leader like Hampton, whose indefatigable work ethic, meticulous organizational skills and ability to adjust on the fly were developed during 10 years as a physical education and health teacher at Greece Arcadia High School.
“Teaching takes a lot of planning, but it also requires you to be able to adapt to unexpected circumstances,” Hampton said during a recent break from preparations. “Your days are fluid. You plan, but things don’t always go as you plan, so you need to be flexible, you need to be able to adjust.”
Hampton, whose students included a pretty fair golfer by the name of Jeff Sluman, came to her position as tournament director by accident. She had stopped teaching after the birth of her second child because she wanted to spend more time at home. In October 1980, she decided to look for a part-time job, and a friend suggested she apply for the opening with the LPGA tournament at Locust Hill Country Club.
“I figured it would be just a few hours a week and I’d do it a few years and move on,” Hampton said, chuckling. “I had no idea what I was getting into. It eventually became a full-time job and then some, but I’ve loved every minute of it.”
She has seen the tournament grow from a small-time event with a purse of $75,000 into a major tournament with a purse of $2.2 million.
“This is how different things were,” she said. “In 1978, I remember parking my car on the side of Jefferson Road and walking onto the course at Locust Hill to watch the tournament. Tickets were free back then, and attendance wasn’t anything like it is now. (Former director Bill Farrell) believed people would come and watch and eat hot dogs, and we’d make our money that way, through concessions. The concept worked. We built up a fan base and eventually were able to sell tickets and solicit larger sponsorships.”
Thanks to the emergence of Nancy Lopez, who won three Rochester tournaments, and the popularity of golf here, the tournament took off. By the late 1980s, the LPGA stop in the Flower City was attracting 80,000 to 90,000 spectators for the week.
“That was a golden era of women’s golf, and you had some great players with great personalities that the fans could really relate to—people like Nancy and Patty Sheehan and JoAnne Carner and Pat Bradley and Tammie Green,” Hampton said. “You had some intense rivalries. People really got into it.”
Although Hampton is disappointed that the LPGA will be leaving Rochester after this tournament, ending a 38-year run, she has come to grips with the decision.
“I’ve reconciled it,” she said. “I understand what the LPGA is trying to do, because it’s all about television and large markets and their commitment to the players to grow the purses and their brand. I know the tour would love to be able to take what they have here in Rochester to a bigger city. They’d do that in a heartbeat. I know they feel badly that they can’t take the fans and volunteers and our unique experience to another venue.
“We do nothing but wish them well. We feel good about what we’ve done and the role we’ve played in women’s golf. Rochester will always be a part of the history of the LPGA.”
Although this is the finale, Hampton continues to be upbeat and enthusiastic. She’s energized by a desire to give the tournament a proper sendoff and by this year’s championship being held for the first time at her home course.
“We were a little concerned about how the move from a June date to mid-August might impact ticket sales because so many people take vacations in August,” she said. “But sales are actually ahead of last year. And sponsor sales have been strong, too. Plus, I think the fans are going to like Monroe. It’s different than Locust Hill but still a great place to watch a tournament. If the weather holds up, I think Rochester is going to write a great closing chapter.”
Lopez, the most popular golfer in the history of the tournament, had hoped to be a part of the sendoff. Unfortunately, she’s committed to a Legends tournament the same week as the Wegmans LPGA Championship. Lopez said she would be here in spirit and would be thinking about the fans, volunteers, sponsors and her friend, Hampton.
“I’ve known Linda forever,” she said. “And I don’t know of anyone who has shown more affection for the LPGA Tour and women’s golf. She’s definitely the leader there. She works so hard to put on a great event. I think the volunteers come back year after year after year because she is such a positive person to work with. And she’s always been great to the players. There have been numerous times when I’d plop down in her office and we’d talk about golf and the tour. I would share with her, and she would share with me. We developed a friendship, and it was the same way with her and so many other players.”
Though this is a bittersweet time for Hampton, she’s not feeling melancholy. Yes, it might be emotional when she heads to the 18th green for the award ceremonies after the final stroke of the tournament. But she’ll also feel immense pride.
“In a lot of ways I’m going to feel like I always do on a Sunday following the final round,” she said. “I’m going to reflect on how so many people came together to make this happen. This truly has been a wonderful community event.”
Hampton, 65, doesn’t know exactly what she will do next, but she intends to stay involved in the community. After closing the books for a final time, she hopes to spend some time with her husband, five children and seven grandchildren. She also hopes to do something she hasn’t been able to do for a long time—play golf.
“Jim Mrva, the golf pro here at Monroe, told me the other day that he was going to have to dust my clubs off,” Hampton said. “I’m looking forward to that.”
Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal’s sports columnist.
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