News & Opinion

LPGA stakes new claim in California

SAN FRANCISCO – Welcome back, LPGA. Nice to have you in our fine state again – and for a longer visit, no less. Maybe you’ll even have time to chill at the beach (well, if the rain stops).

Beginning this week, the world’s best women’s golfers will play four of their next five tournaments in California, from Carlsbad and Rancho Mirage to Los Angeles and Daly City, just outside of San Francisco. The only interruption will come when they jet to Hawaii for a week on Oahu.

Given this uncommon run of events in the Golden State, it seems timely to point out: the LPGA needs California.

That might sound provincial coming from someone who has lived here for more than 40 years. But our picturesque, overcrowded, romanticized state does carry some cachet in golf circles.

Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson grew up in California, as did Rickie Fowler and (going back a few years) Johnny Miller. Plus, for purposes of this conversation, let’s not forget Juli Inkster and Pat Hurst, or Paula Creamer and (going back a few more years) Mickey Wright.

Nearly 40 million people live in California, and quite a few of them play golf. They also love to watch the game and typically turn out in big numbers at marquee events. There’s a reason the PGA Tour’s annual West Coast swing includes four stops in California.

So, realistically, the LPGA’s return to the nation’s most populous state has less to do with romance and history than it does with business and practicality. Tour officials shrewdly follow the money.

“It’s mainly title sponsor-driven,” said Jon Podany, the LPGA’s chief commercial officer.

That’s why the tournament at Lake Merced Golf Club, a classic tree-lined course about 15 minutes from downtown San Francisco, vanished from last year’s schedule. Swinging Skirts, a nonprofit that is devoted to expanding women’s golf and has been the title sponsor for the previous three years, preferred to pour its money into the LPGA event in Taiwan, closer to the organization’s home.

Mediheal, a Korean skin-care company, ultimately stepped forward.

“We tried to keep the event at Lake Merced going, but we couldn’t get another sponsor quickly enough to avoid the gap year,” Podany said. “It’s a great track and great city, and the players like playing there. There was certainly a desire to get back to San Francisco as soon as we could.”

LPGA officials are wise to embrace the Bay Area, given its rich history of women’s golf and abundance of good courses. The tour had a five-year run in suburban Danville (2006-10), but the event at Lake Merced makes more sense, given its proximity to San Francisco.

Just as significantly, the LPGA will resurface in Los Angeles next month – for the first time since 2011, and for the first time with a regularly scheduled tournament since 2005. The Hugel-JTBC Los Angeles Open will be played at Wilshire Country Club.

Again, the Korea-based title sponsor had a big say in choosing the location. Los Angeles and San Francisco have much to offer Asian companies, with easier travel access and diverse populations.

Not incidentally, this upcoming run of California events pushes television coverage of the LPGA into prime time in the Eastern time zone. That’s a big deal. And the players like the convenience, bouncing from Phoenix to Carlsbad to Rancho Mirage during one stretch and from Los Angeles to San Francisco during another.

Andy Bush, executive vice president of events at Octagon, which will run next month’s Lake Merced event, heartily endorsed the LPGA’s growing footprint in California.

“It’s huge for the tour to finally get back here,” Bush said.

He’s right about that.

Ron Kroichick has covered golf for the San Francisco Chronicle since 2005. He also is a regular contributor to NCGA Golf, the Northern California Golf Association’s magazine. E-mail: r.kroichick@comcast.net; Twitter: @ronkroichick