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This Sure Isn't a Mid-Major

Kraft Nabisco Championship, a big LPGA event, comes early in the season.

March 25, 2004|Thomas Bonk | Times Staff Writer

The World Series is not played in June. March Madness has become an institution. The Kentucky Derby is always in May, the Indianapolis 500 is always scheduled for Memorial Day, and the Masters is always in April.

So why is the first LPGA major of the year played three weeks into the season?

It's a question that has been around since the LPGA ditched the January and February part of its schedule two years ago.

And with the $1.6-million Kraft Nabisco Championship beginning today at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, another question that needs to be answered is this: Is two weeks too short for the competition skill of the players to catch up to the importance of the event?

Annika Sorenstam is the favorite this week, basically because she won her first two times out this year and the fact that she's a proven winner here, with back-to-back victories in 2001 and 2002.

Last year's champion, Patricia Meunier-Lebouc, who beat Sorenstam by one shot, is not playing after giving birth to her first child last month.

Sorenstam may not need the on-course preparation, but how it will affect others is not so clear. Whatever the effect of a truncated lead-in to one of the LPGA's most revered majors may be, it doesn't make any difference in the long run, according to LPGA Commissioner Ty Votaw.

But Votaw stopped short of saying the timing of the event was "ideal."

"Ideal is a perspective that is framed by the circumstances you are dealt," said Votaw, adding that the LPGA probably would like to add a couple of events to the schedule, depending on the market for sponsorships.

Votaw noted that the Daytona 500 kicks off NASCAR's season.

"So it's not unheard of to have a big event relatively early in the schedule of other sports," he said.

The circumstances affecting the Kraft Nabisco scheduling are well known. The tournament sponsor doesn't want the event to be moved to another date, later in the calendar, because it's a good time to entertain clients and vendors.

The LPGA can ill afford to lose any sponsor, especially one that has been as steadfast as Kraft Nabisco, which owns the tournament. But that hasn't stopped Votaw from checking Kraft's pulse about a move.

"Every year we respectfully ask and every year they respectfully decline," he said.

This is only the second time in his 15 years with the LPGA that there were no sponsor defections, Votaw said.

The other difficulties associated with the tournament date are well known, beginning with its sports competition on television. The event goes up against the men's and women's NCAA basketball tournament and the Players Championship on the PGA Tour.

Last year, the Kraft Nabisco drew a .9 Nielsen rating on Saturday and a 1.3 on Sunday on ABC. In 2001, the numbers were 1.7 on Saturday and 1.1 on Sunday. In 2002, when the Players Championship was played the week before the Nabisco and the Shell Houston Open was televised as a lead-in, the Kraft-Nabisco had a 2.2 rating on Sunday.

The only thing that is moving for sure is the 18th tee at Mission Hills. The LPGA is planning to move it up 47 yards, from 531 yards to 485 yards, as a test either today or during the second round Friday to see if it would entice more players to go for the island green in two.

Ready or not, when the players tee it up today, there will be much at stake for many, not only Sorenstam, who begins her quest to win all four of the major titles this year.

There is a Hall of Fame goal for Se Ri Pak and Laura Davies, who would be eligible with a victory. Pak needs just one point to reach the 27-point requirement. Davies is two points short, but a major is worth two points. Also, a victory by either one would compete a career grand slam.

Michelle Wie, who tied for 19th last week at Phoenix, is back to try to improve on how she played last year at Mission Hills, where she tied for ninth at 13th.

Others expected to be in the mix are Grace Park, who tied for second at Tucson and tied for third last week, and Lorena Ochoa, Christie Kerr, Shi Hyun Ahn, Rosie Jones, Juli Inkster, Karrie Webb and Aree Song.

*

This Week

*--* LPGA TOUR Kraft Nabisco Championship

*--*

* When: Today-Sunday.

* Where: Mission Hills Country Club, Dinah Shore Tournament Course (6,520 yards, par 72), Rancho Mirage.

* Purse: $1.6 million. Winner's share: $240,000.

* TV: ESPN2 (today-Friday, 2-4 p.m.) and Channel 7 (Saturday, 1:30-3 p.m.; Sunday, 1-3 p.m.).

* 2003 winner: Patricia Meunier-Lebouc.

* Next week: Office Depot Championship at El Caballero Country Club in Tarzana.

*--* PGA TOUR The Players Championship

*--*

* When: Today-Sunday.

* Where: TPC at Sawgrass, Stadium Course (7,093 yards, par 72); Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.

* Purse: $8 million. Winner's share: $1.44 million.

* TV: ESPN (today-Friday, 9 a.m.-3 p.m.) and Channel 4 (Saturday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; Sunday, 10:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m.).

* 2003 winner: Davis Love III.

* Next week: BellSouth Classic in Duluth, Ga.

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