KPMG Women's PGA stirring interest in Pacific Northwest

By Scott Hanson
Published on

SEATTLE -- Paige Mackenzie isn't sure if she was 14 or 15 at the time, but the rest of the details are crystal clear.

She had made the trip from Yakima to watch the Safeco Classic, the annual LPGA Tour event at Meridian Valley Country Club in Kent.

On the 13th hole, it happened.

She made a momentary connection with Annika Sorenstam, one of the greatest players in LPGA history.

"I mean, she looked right at me," said Mackenzie, who went on to become an All-American player at Washington and now is a Golf Channel analyst. "Right at me."

Moments such as that have Mackenzie excited that the top LPGA players finally are coming back to Washington from June 9-12 for the KPMG Women's PGA Championship at Sahalee Country Club in Sammamish, 17 years after the Safeco Classic ended because it lost its sponsorship.

"It's exciting from a personal level that a whole new cycle of kids have a chance to be on that side of the ropes first, to be inspired by their accomplishments and think that, 'Maybe someday I can do that, too.' "

For LPGA commissioner, Mike Whan, it's a chance to showcase his Tour to this state. He is convinced fans will like what they see: players who he says will go out of their way to be accessible and interactive with fans.

It's also a chance for him to go fishing, as in trying to lure a sponsor that could bring an annual LPGA event back to this area.

"It would be good for the Tour, and it would be good for the players," Whan said.

Mary Lou Mulflur, the UW women's golf coach for 33 years, said it will be great for fans to have another golf major in the area just a year after the men's U.S. Open was held at Chambers Bay in University Place.

Fans whose only experience at a pro golf event was that U.S. Open might be surprised at how different it will be at Sahalee, with much greater accessibility for viewing the action.

"Sahalee is such a great venue, and such a great place to be in the gallery," Mulflur said. "The Tour has done an amazing job getting their players to be active participants in promoting the Tour and obliging a fan's wish. You can see all that. It's a major, and the stakes will be higher, but the players will still be willing to do all the things that need to be done for the fans, so why wouldn't you be inspired? Why wouldn't you want to watch?"

It would be hard for a player to walk around Sahalee Country Club, atop the Sammamish Plateau southeast of Redmond, and not be inspired by the setting. Huge red cedar and hemlock trees line the fairways, and then there are all the flowers, the rhododendrons that can be 20 to 30 feet tall, with all different colors.

And the course? It has hosted the world's best men in the 1998 PGA Championship, the 2002 World Golf Championship NEC Invitational and the 2010 U.S. Senior Open.

Now the best women in the world are coming. The LPGA Championship began in 1955 and has long been one of the more important of the Tour's five majors. But its stature took a big leap forward when the LPGA joined forces with the PGA of America for this event beginning last year, with the new name of KPMG Women's PGA Championship.

The purse was increased to $3.5 million, second-largest on the Tour after the Women's U.S. Open, and 99 of the top 100 ranked women in the world competed in last year's event in New York. A similar turnout of top players is expected this year.

Advance ticket sales for the event at Sahalee have exceeded expectations. That does not surprise Mackenzie.

"Seattle has such a strong golf community; they're rabid fans despite a short golf season," she said. "I am sure they will rally around this event. Look at the amount of people who came last year to the U.S. Open when they knew it would be a poor spectating experience. At Sahalee, fans will be arm's length, and at times they will literally be shoulder to shoulder with the player. Sahalee is even more intimate than the average course because the fairways are so narrow."

Though it was hard for even hard-core amateur golfers to relate to the swing speeds of the men at last year's U.S. Open, not to mention the distance their shots traveled, Mulflur said watching the women can be instructive.

"The good players can relate to the female (pro) players," she said. "They hit what a good female hits. The rhythm is similar."

And all the while, expect the players to show appreciation to the fans, whether it's signing autographs, posing for pictures or looking around and smiling at the gallery. That's just what Whan wanted when he became commissioner in 2010, but he said it wasn't a tough sell. The players already were on board.

Mackenzie, certainly, never forgot that look from Sorenstam. But Mackenzie said she has never talked to Sorenstam about it, even though the two have become friends. "I am just too embarrassed," Mackenzie said.

Whan hears about similar special moments all the time.

"If you're a player and you walk past a young girl in a visor, then shame on you," he said. "Because that's a chance you missed to make an impact."

By all accounts, the Safeco Classic was a successful event for 18 years with good galleries, but it ended after 1999 when Safeco ended its sponsorship.

Mulflur hopes that having the Women's PGA Championship will spur interest in this area to get another annual LPGA event. Whan would love to get his Tour back into the state on a regular basis. The only annual event nearby is the Portland Classic, played this year from June 30 to July 3.

Having an event in the Seattle area around the same time would be great for the players from a travel perspective, Whan said. He hopes that when potential sponsors see what the LPGA Tour is about this summer, they will want to get involved.

"Ninety-nine percent of our tournaments begin at someone else's event, because the benefits of it you can see and feel," he said. "At the pro-ams, they will see that this is different, that the players are different, and the dialogue (to sponsor an event) starts. That's when the fishing is at its best. I feel like if we're going to find new, interested parties, it will happen at the golf course."

This article was written by Scott Hanson from Seattle Times and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.