Senior LPGA Championship – a New Chapter in Women’s Golf

The Pete Dye Course at French Lick Resort (Photo courtesy of French Lick Resort)
The Pete Dye Course at French Lick Resort (Photo courtesy of French Lick Resort)

Some say it was 67 years in the making, although the idea took root rather recently.

Many legends of women’s golf will take the stage at the inaugural Senior LPGA Championship presented by Old National Bank®, to be played July 10-12, 2017, on The Pete Dye Course at French Lick Resort, in French Lick, Indiana. The event is a long-awaited opportunity for the best and brightest LPGA Tour talents to compete once again at the highest level among their peers, showcasing the skills that made them great and that still define their distinction in the game.

Jane Blalock (Photo courtesy of JBC Golf, Inc.)
Jane Blalock (Photo courtesy of JBC Golf, Inc.)

“The launching of this major tournament represents our most recent significant volley to make sure we give the same resources to the senior tour as we devote to the LPGA and Symetra Tours,” said Mike Whan, LPGA Commissioner. “The response has been great.

“The number-one thing we can do to shine a light on our sport is to show the best players.”

The LPGA Tour reached a multi-year deal to host the tournament as well as to have it televised live on Golf Channel.

The LPGA, founded in 1950, is one of the longest-running women’s professional sports associations in the world. The Legends Tour, the official senior tour of the LPGA, features some of the most memorable and talented female golfers in the history of the game. The launching of the Senior LPGA Championship recognizes that golf is a game of longevity and that many of the veterans who have scaled its heights retain the skills and competitiveness that placed them at its zenith. The field for the no-cut 54-hole event will be 81 women, including LPGA Hall of Famers and major champions, all 45 and over.

Steve Ferguson (Photo courtesy of Cook Group)
Steve Ferguson (Photo courtesy of Cook Group)

Jane Blalock, CEO of JBC Golf, Inc., founded The Legends Tour and the LPGA Golf Clinics for Women. Her company handles operations, administration and marketing for the Women’s Senior Golf Association and The Legends Tour. With 27 LPGA Tour victories to her name and status as a Legends Hall of Fame member, Blalock is well positioned to note the significance of the inaugural Senior LPGA Championship. In fact, she was instrumental in bringing it about.

“We were looking for some kind of equality,” said Blalock, 71. “Great LPGA players didn’t have a chance to continue their careers, and the public didn’t have a chance to watch their favorite players.”

Jane Crafter (Photo courtesy of Jane Crafter)
Jane Crafter (Photo courtesy of Jane Crafter)

After approaching some sports marketing companies to no avail, Blalock and her company staged a few senior women’s professional tournaments. She then flew to French Lick several times to discuss the idea for a new senior women’s professional tournament, meeting in 2012 with Steve Ferguson, chairman of Cook Group and president of French Lick Resort, and Dave Harner, director of golf at French Lick Resort. The concept began to take root.

“I was anxious over our lunch meeting, knowing this could be our most important tournament,” Blalock said. “Steve Ferguson stated that he’d like to do it even bigger.

“He asked me to call Mike Whan. I didn’t reach Mike, so I left a message. When we resumed our lunch, Steve said he wanted the tournament on Golf Channel.”

Two days later, Blalock sent Whan an email message, explaining what they were trying to do and the genesis of the concept. When he called her, Whan outlined what he envisioned the challenges to be, including sponsorships. Blalock then asked Whan to speak with Ferguson, and the result was history in the making.

Kathy Whitworth (Photo courtesy of Kathy Whitworth)
Kathy Whitworth (Photo courtesy of Kathy Whitworth)

Along with Jane Crafter, president of The Legends Tour and another former LPGA Tour player, who is now a broadcaster, Blalock had lobbied Whan to take the idea to the next level.

Ferguson led the charge to bring the Senior LPGA Championship to French Lick Resort to add to the resort’s past tournament lineup, which included The Legends Tour Championship presented by Old National Bank® from 2013-2016, the 2015 Senior PGA Championship presented by KitchenAid® and the 2011 Hickory Open, among others.

“The fact that there wasn’t a senior women’s championship didn’t seem right to all of us,” Ferguson said. “We were successful in getting the LPGA to recognize what we were doing and that it was time.

“With this one, you now have a balance.”

Rosie Jones (Photo courtesy of RBA Golf L.L.C.)
Rosie Jones (Photo courtesy of RBA Golf L.L.C.)

The inaugural 2017 Senior LPGA Championship was agreed to in principle on October 31, 2016, to be followed by another Championship in 2018.

The importance of the new event is evident to Harner.

“It puts women’s golf on a more equal footing with men,” Harner said. “It will help grow The Legends Tour, put a new spark in women’s golf after age 45 and create robust viewership among men and women.”

Blalock is gratified to see the launch of the tournament.

“The interest among my colleagues has been phenomenal,” she said. “The biggest news has been Golf Channel coverage.

“This is huge for us – it brings attention to The Legends Tour and will help us get more events. Success begets success.”

Dave Harner, PGA, Director of Golf, French Lick Resort (Photo courtesy of Dave Harner, PGA)
Dave Harner, PGA, Director of Golf, French Lick Resort (Photo courtesy of Dave Harner, PGA)

Pomp and circumstance at the inaugural event will be plentiful. Legendary player Kathy Whitworth, 77, will hit the opening ceremonial tee shot and play in the Honors Division, as will Blalock. Many of golf’s finest are among those who will compete – including World Golf Hall of Fame members Laura Davies, Patty Sheehan, Hollis Stacy, Betsy King, Pat Bradley and Amy Alcott. In the field will be LPGA Tour Major Championship winners Brandie Burton, Jan Stephenson, Sally Little, Helen Alfredsson and others. This will be the first-ever Legends Tour event to be televised.

World Golf Hall of Fame member Annika Sorenstam, 46, did not enter. Winner of 72 official LPGA titles and 10 major championships, she has not played competitively since her retirement following the 2008 season.

Rosie Jones, 57, who preceded Crafter as president of the Legends Tour, was a 13-time winner on the LPGA Tour. She looks forward to competing in the tournament.

“All of us have always wanted a Senior LPGA Championship,” Jones said. “The PGA Tour has had one for years and years.

“Millions of people remember our names but have lost touch with us. This tournament will reconnect them with us and future players.

“It’s a dream come true for us former LPGA players – not only another major championship, but also a feeling of belonging to the LPGA after retirement. Now being recognized and being able to play under the LPGA banner again is really exciting.”

The Senior LPGA Championship is an example of an expanded focus on senior women’s golf at the highest levels. The United States Golf Association will stage the inaugural U.S. Senior Women’s Open Championship at Chicago Golf Club, in Wheaton, Illinois, next year. Players must be 50 years old to compete.

Blalock believes the new attention to senior women’s golf at its most accomplished levels brings continued credibility and respect to these fine, deserving players. And it encourages women to take up or stay with the game, setting a standard for a healthy lifestyle.

“It goes beyond golf,” Blalock said. “It’s about recognition and excellence.”

–Sally J. Sportsman            Senior Golf Insider