The LPGA Tour sails this week into one of the friendliest ports in a stormy sports landscape for women's golf.
The world's best women's golfers are back in Rochester for the second major championship of the year -- the Wegmans LPGA Championship.
It's the 35th straight year the tour plays in Rochester, which makes it the second-longest running tournament site on the schedule. The purse of $2.5 million is second best of the tour's American events, behind only the U.S. Women's Open.
"It's the fans that make it special," said Brittany Lincicome, a 25-year-old from Florida ranked fifth on the money list this year. "The fans are so awesome here in Rochester. You can tell when you're driving in, people are having fans park in their yards. It's just a great community for golf. You can tell they really enjoy having us here. It's great to come back to a place where you feel welcome."
If only there were more Rochesters for the LPGA.
The tour has been hit hard by the recession. There only are 24 events on the schedule this year, down 11 from five years ago. There only are 13 events in the United States. The loss of title sponsors over the past several years has created big gaps in the schedule. The PGA Tour already has held 26 events. The LPGA Tour has held a mere 10.
"With the economy now, we've lost a couple tournaments last year, which is unfortunate, obviously, especially the ones that had been around 30-plus years," Lincicome said. "It was sad to see. But the economy is killing everybody. It's not just us. It's NASCAR, it's men's golf, it's everybody. Any time we have a tournament that signs on for a couple more years, like here, it's fantastic. We really can't thank them enough."
LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan is just 18 months into his tenure as leader of the tour. His job was made more difficult by the unsuccessful five-year tenure of his predecessor, Carolyn Bivens, who exacerbated the economic challenges by creating bad blood among some tournament owners.
The tour has had success growing globally -- it will hold events in 12 countries abroad, including six in Asia. Eleven of the top 20-ranked players in the world are from Asia. The tour also added a new season-finale this year. Whan said he hopes to have three new domestic events on the 2012 schedule.
"This is a very important year for us," said the world's top American, No. 2-ranked Cristie Kerr. "Mike's had a year under his belt with the Tour to kind of see how things run and to get introduced to all the partners that we have. And you know, I think that he's done a very good job for his first year, but I think now is a time to build and to go after finding new sponsorships, and you know, foster new relationships and try and get more events, especially in the United States on the schedule."
For a week, anyway, the women can revel in a sure-fire success -- the tournament at Locust Hill Country Club in the suburb of Pittsford, just south of the city limits.
It annually has ranked as one of the top three best-attended events on tour since it started in 1977. Wegmans, the title sponsor since 1998, is signed through 2012 with an option to go three more years.
There's a long tradition of watching pro golf in Rochester, dating back to the career of Rochester native and golf legend Walter Hagen in the 1920s. Major men's championships have been held in Rochester regularly since 1949.
The Rochester event became a major in 2010 when the LPGA lost McDonald's as a major title sponsor. Wegmans stepped up and reportedly commits about $3 million annually to the event.
With all of the world's top players entered, a tight finish is expected -- unlike last year.
Kerr routed the field by 12 shots last year with a 19-under-par finish. It matched the lowest score in relation to par ever for a women's major.
"I had one of those performances that every athlete dreams about," Kerr said.
"I think she was playing a different golf course than the rest of us," said Lincicome.
The Locust Hill course has been lengthened by 300 yards over the past two years to make it more major ready. Playing at 6,534 yards, it still isn't as long as the Kraft Nabisco (6,702 yards). But it's almost as long as last year's U.S. Open site, played at 6,598 yards.
The course played a bit soft last year. Firmer conditions are likely to make it play tougher this year. The rough around a lot of the fairways has been pinched in, although it has thinned out a little this month after growing like mad during the wet spring.
"It's all about hitting the fairways this week, and the greens are super fast," Lincicome said. "We have to take advantage where we can, especially the par 5s. It'd be nice to go for the par 5s in two. It's a great golf course."
> Wegmans LPGA Championship
WHAT: It's the second of four majors in women's pro golf.
WHEN: Thursday through Sunday.
WHERE: Locust Hill Country Club, Pittsford.
PURSE: $2.5 million.
TV: Golf Channel 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. Thursday-Friday; 4 to 7 p.m. Saturday-Sunday.
TICKETS: Purchase daily tickets at all Wegmans stores or at the tournament gates. Daily ticket: $35; Tournament Pass: $100; Clubhouse Pass: $145. Children 15 and under are admitted free with a paying adult.
DIRECTIONS: Take NYS Thruway to Exit 46, go north about 5 miles to Jefferson Road (Route 252). Turn right on Jefferson Road about 2 miles to course.