Nichols: It’s sad to see the LPGA leave Mission Hills, but here’s why it’s ultimately a good thing

·5 min read

When is it worth sacrificing tradition for progress?

That’s the question many are grappling with after news broke that the old “Dinah Shore” event will be getting an extreme makeover. With Chevron in as the new title sponsor, the event will be moving away from Mission Hills and Poppie’s Pond and the traditional pre-Masters date beginning in 2023.

The new Chevron Championship purse will increase by 60 percent in 2022 to $5 million, putting it in line with the rest of the LPGA’s majors. The ANA Inspiration’s 2021 purse of $3.1 million is only $100,000 more than this week’s Cognizant Founders Cup.

Is the money worth it?

In short: Yes.

Because it’s not just about the money. The move to a later date in the spring guarantees network television coverage, which should be at the top of the priority list for all big events on the LPGA’s calendar. Does tradition really matter if not enough people see it?

There were a number of hurdles in moving the event’s dates away from the Augusta National Women’s Amateur and keeping it at Mission Hills, including the club’s flexibility, Coachella, desert heat, a dwindling volunteer base and the need for a week with an available 28 hours of live television.

LPGA commissioner Mike Whan was asked about the future of the ANA, which had one year left on its contract, during a press conference at this year’s event.

“You hate to lose tradition,” said Whan, “but as I always tell people, respect history, love history, don’t be afraid to make a little along the way. If you can make a new history that’s better, have at it, but this one to be tough to achieve that, I’ll be the first to admit.”

Mission Hills Country Club
Mission Hills Country Club

Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, California, home of the ANA Inspiration. (Photo: Beth Ann Nichols/Golfweek)

Before anyone gives too much credit – good or bad – to new commissioner Mollie Marcoux Samaan, this move was in the works well before the former Princeton athletic director got to her post.

And rumors of the event moving out of Rancho Mirage, California, have been swirling for a long time. Those who have been on the ground at Mission Hills for years can attest to the fact that the event had lost some of its buzz, even before Augusta National stole so much of the spotlight.

For many, there’s a deep emotional attachment to Mission Hills. It’s the kind of place that fills the soul just stepping on property. A bucket-list event for fans and a favorite among the players.

It’s going to be sad to leave. And yes, it’s gut-wrenching to walk away from 50 years of tradition.

Which is why it’s so important that everyone gets one last hurrah in the desert. One final leap into Poppie’s Pond. Wouldn’t it be special if past champions like Lorena Ochoa, Karrie Webb, Juli Inkster and Annika Sorenstam came back to play? Like the Masters, former champions have a place in the field. At the very least an exhibition seems in order.

Before the pandemic, there was an annual champions dinner early in the week. No doubt that will return in 2022.

What traditions carry on beyond Mission Hills depends in part on which course they go to. Is there already a pond on the 18th and room for a small pool? (Serious question!) Perhaps that statue of Dinah should be replicated.

It’s important to remember that the LPGA is only as good as its majors.

On Mike Whan’s second day on the job as LPGA commissioner, he traveled to the desert to meet with officials from Kraft. They walked the back nine at the Dinah Shore course and had lunch overlooking the 18th green. While walking out to his car, Whan got the news that Kraft was out after three more years. His first meeting with a sponsor was, in fact, a goodbye.

“The British Open was going through a pretty difficult time in terms of sponsor renewal,” said Whan in recalling the story. “I remember thinking at the time I might be in the job a year, and we’ll be down to one major.”

While many referred to the Dinah Shore as the LPGA’s Masters because it stayed in one place, held great traditions and had white caddie jumpsuits, the fact that Whan considered signing ANA to be his greatest day on the job as commissioner says it all: There were no guarantees.

It’s a new era for the majors, of course, thanks to the backing of the R&A and the PGA of America – and a renewed zest from the USGA – major championship purses are growing and venues are vastly improving.

Speaking of venues, there’s no doubt that the new course that’s chosen for The Chevron needs to be a home run. Players must view it as a major-caliber test, a place they look forward to coming to each year. All the bells and whistles in the world can’t make up for a mediocre golf course.

But just think about “The Chevron” for a minute. It’s a title that has gravitas. It’s a brand everyone in America is familiar with, not to mention around the world. (After seven years of title sponsorship, people still refer to the ANA as “The Anna.”)

View of the 18th green on Wednesday at the 2012 Kraft Nabisco Championship.

Hopefully it’s the kind of blue-chip sponsor that makes other Fortune 100 companies look to the LPGA as a potential partner.

Because that’s what this is really about – progress. The greatest tradition of the LPGA – more than leaps and robes and celebrities ­– is that it weathers storms and comes out stronger.

Chevron has the deep pockets, commitment and vision that it takes to build on what David Foster and Dinah Shore started more than 50 years ago.

It’s time to look toward the future.

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Chevron ushering in new LPGA era with bigger purse, new date, major changes to former Dinah Shore event