Evian makes case as LPGA's 5th major
As the LPGA begins its fifth major of the year (no, that is NOT a typo) for the first time in its 63-year history, I'm pondering the somewhat simple, yet somewhat complicated question: "What is a major?"
As recently as 1978, there were only two majors on the LPGA's schedule. With the five biggest events now spread out on the calendar from early April to mid-September, what really sets them apart? Does this week's Evian Championship make its case after being on the LPGA's schedule for just 13 years?
Is it the field? The purse? The course? The traditions? The position on the schedule? The way the players are treated? Television coverage? What is it?
For those who have followed my writing the past few years, I've left you with few questions: I am a traditionalist, but also one who understands that in no way is LPGA golf a solely American sport or business. I like the concept of four major championships, something the LPGA has been accustomed to since 1983, and men's golf well prior to that. The Champions Tour has five majors, so this move is not unheard of, but we'll take a closer look.
Golf, while originally a sport of English-speaking players, is now anything but for just the English-speaking. It is truly global, and one need look no further than the LPGA's membership for proof. This year, the tour has members from 34 nations and will play in 14 countries. If there is any tour that needs a larger, worldwide representation among its majors, it is the LPGA.
But let's get back to the original question -- what is a major? -- and let's put check marks in boxes where they qualify.
The field. The top 40 in the world rankings were represented when the field was released Sept. 4, with a total starting field of 120. Special exemptions were given to, among others, Solheim Cup players and captains such as Helen Alfredsson and Sophie Gustafson. Well deserved. Spot on. Check.
The purse. At $3.25 million, it is tied with the U.S. Women's Open, unquestionably the most coveted title in women's golf, for the largest purse. If you're playing for the money, check.
The course. Ahhh ... here is where things get a little dicey. I played my fair share of Evian Masters (it became the Evian Championship with its major championship designation) in the final third of my playing career. My best finish was tied for third in 2000. The course, although incredibly picturesque as it cascaded from the edge of the Alps toward Lake Geneva, was claustrophobic, not friendly to those (like me) who are afraid of heights (not sure I ever walked to the front of the second tee) and did not really separate great golf from the otherwise ordinary.
While it had an extremely exciting par-5 finishing hole, the rest of the course was rather average and definitely not major championship-worthy. Enter American architect Steve Smyers and his consulting work with Dave Sampson of European Golf Design. While I have not been on site, I understand the work to be noteworthy, legitimate and needing only time to let us pass fair judgment. Not ready to assign that check mark yet.
Traditions. I don't remember many at Evian set in stone, other than an annual player/caddie/celeb soccer match (a few turned up lame from that one) and the fireworks post-gala dinner. But since 2007, there has been an international junior cup match played post-championship, consisting of the best junior players worldwide. If it is kids and tradition together, you get a check mark. It may not be the champion jumping in Poppy's Pond as at the Kraft Nabisco/aka Dinah Shore, but still really good. Check.
Spot on the schedule. I love having the majors spread out. The first major ended April 7, and Evian will end Sept. 15 -- a full 42 days after the completion of the previous major, the Women's British Open. There is no one riding a hot hand from start to finish, though Inbee Park, winner of the first three majors, certainly tried. Check.
Player hospitality. None better. From the hotels to transportation to meals to whatever crisis pops up at the last minute, there is no tournament better for coordination for players, media, spouses or guests. Check.
Television coverage. Twenty hours of total coverage (even if it isn't ours on ESPN, sigh) is nothing to sneeze at. Check.
Bottom line: While I am not a fan of five majors, I understand the need for the LPGA, its diverse membership and for sponsor support to embrace this decision. LPGA golf is not about just the USA. It is global. But let's let the Evian Championship grow some serious roots before we pass final judgment on its merit for the tour. I think Simon Cowell would give it as much as 5.5 out of 7 points. I find myself in agreement.