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LPGA Seeks Stability in L.A.

Golf: Frustration grows as tour event begins today at fourth different Southland location in as many years.

April 05, 2002|PETER YOON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The LPGA Tour is back in the Los Angeles area this week and, not surprisingly, it's at a new venue.

The Office Depot Championship begins today at El Caballero Country Club in Tarzana, continuing a frustrating trend where the tour bounces from course to course yearly.

El Caballero is the fourth different LPGA Tour course in as many years and the Los Angeles stop has also had four different names in the last six years. It's no wonder attendance at the event has been dwindling annually.

The instability has hampered tour efforts to build tradition in the area, a task difficult enough in a town where sports fans gravitate to the Lakers and Dodgers, golfers would rather be out playing than watching and the beach and entertainment industry steal spectators.

Nobody knows that better than Amy Alcott, an LPGA Hall of Fame member who grew up and still lives on the Westside and is doing her best to establish an LPGA presence in her hometown.

"It's so tough in a city where there is so much going on," Alcott said. "But it means a lot to me to have a tournament here. This is a great golf town and I want to see it have a successful tournament."

For that, it needs stability.

Last year, the tournament was at Wilshire Country Club. The year before, it was at Wood Ranch Golf Club in Simi Valley and from 1997-99, it was at Oakmont Country Club in Glendale. The tour has visited Los Angeles and Orange Counties 24 times since 1955 and has been played at 12 different courses.

The Oakmont members voted the tournament out after its three-year deal ended. After Wood Ranch, tournament organizer KJ Sports bowed out with financial problems.

Los Angeles looked to be without a tournament, as it had been from 1993-96, until The City of Hope expressed interest in moving its South Carolina tournament closer to its Los Angeles headquarters.

"It would be nice to find one place where we could have one tournament year after year and build some tradition," said Annika Sorenstam, the No. 1 player in the world. "I don't know why we're moving every time. I think it's great to have a tournament [in Los Angeles], but it would be nice to play in one place and get to know a course."

It also has an impact on fans, who must seek out where the tournament will be from year to year, rather than taking comfort in a familiar place.

"When you move around, it's tough for people to find out where you're playing every week," Sorenstam said.

Kellee Booth, an Orange County native who still lives in Rancho Santa Margarita, attended every LPGA tournament at Mesa Verde Country Club in Costa Mesa from 1979-86 and at Los Coyotes Country Club in Buena Park from 1989-92. She said the experience gave her direction.

"That had a big impact on me," said Booth, a third-year pro. "I remember watching Nancy Lopez winning out there and thinking 'this would be a cool way to make a living.' It would be nice if the tournament was in a stable location."

Tournament director Laurie Petersen, who had only 90 days to find a course and a sponsor when she took over last year, said she is looking for the same kind of stability. The tour and its sponsors have a three-year contract to hold a Los Angeles event. El Caballero is only committed for one year, though Petersen said it is her option to move.

"But I have no intentions of doing that," Petersen said. "You want to keep the same dates, the same title sponsor and the same location. Those are the things we're trying to do with this tournament."

The LPGA would also like to build a tradition in Los Angeles. Rob Neal, tour vice president of business affairs, sees the current sponsorship and venue as a step in the right direction.

"Obviously, the Los Angeles market is important to any sports organization," Neal said. "Now that we have some stable ingredients, I think we have all the pieces in place for that."

Alcott has high hopes. She is happy with the venue and would like to see the tournament join the list of five other tour events that have been played continuously at the same course for 22 years or longer.

"All my history is here in Los Angeles," Alcott said. "I'm proud of that and I would like to give back to the golf community here and have the best tournament on tour."

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