It will be a celebration of the 50th playing of the ANA Inspiration, but April’s renewal of the first major championship of the year will be muted again by the COVID-19 pandemic.
That means for the second year in a row, the LPGA major championship will be played without fans on the Dinah Shore Tournament Course at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, California, though the event does return to its traditional first week of April dates. That makes the ANA Inspiration once again the first major championship played on any of the major golf tours.
“We’ll follow suit to what the state mandates and guides us to be, which right now is without spectators,” said Alyssa Randolph, tournament manager of the ANA Inspiration.
After a 2020 season that saw the tournament postponed from April to September and played without spectators because of the pandemic, tournament officials were hoping the 2021 event could be played with at least limited spectators. But Riverside County remains under the state’s most-restrictive purple tier, which allows live sports to be played but without spectators.
In reality, few things in the state and county have changed since last September. The PGA Tour’s American Express was played in La Quinta in January under restrictions and without fans.
“In September, we weren’t technically in that purple tier where we could outdoor dine at restaurants,” Randolph said. “So that is one positive that we have going right, this very minute, today. So maybe we are a little bit ahead, but not that big of a difference.”
One major change from 2020 for the tournament is the time of year of the event. Postponed from its April dates and rescheduled for September, the tournament and LPGA players faced temperatures climbing over 100 degrees, a golf course dominated by Bermuda grass rather than the cool-weather rye grass of April and even smoke-filled skies from a nearby wildfire. Mirim Lee defeated Nelly Korda and Brooke Henderson in a playoff to win the tournament.
Things should revert to normal for the tournament this year, starting with its April 1-4 dates.
Back to the first major of the year
“First and foremost is the fact that it can be played in its opening-the-year major position is so big,” said Michele Mair, vice president of golf communications for International Management Group, operators of the ANA Inspiration. “And not having the different weather conditions and different course conditions.
“Definitely being the very first opening major of the year is very special to us,” Mair added.
Another plus for the event in 2021 is that the 2020 tournament was played successfully under pandemic conditions. Those lessons should carry over to April’s event, said Teo Sodeman, the tournament director.
“It was great to see all the work that was put in by the team really work out well,” Sodeman said. “As you know, we planned and planned and planned and changed and changed and changed and came up with the final product. I don’t think we are going to change that final product very much because it was so successful.”
Those protocols include testing of players, staff and volunteers, keeping the clubhouse closed to Mission Hills members and having hand sanitizer available to players on the course.
Randolph said the tournament continues to work with city, regional and state authorities on the event.
“Since we’re operating our back-to-back majors in the same event format, we already have our plan approved under current state guidelines from September 2020,” she said. “Of course, we are always in close collaboration with the county and really appreciate their guidance and support.”
Other operational facts about the 2021 ANA Inspiration include:
A full purse: The purse remains at $3.1 million, fully funded by tournament host All-Nippon Airways for a second year in a row despite no fans in attendance.
A celebration of the event’s 50th year: Randolph said the tournament is still working on plans, whether they be virtually or branding or perhaps having some past champions at Mission Hills for the event. There should also be plenty of talk about tournament hostess Dinah Shore, who began with the tournament in 1972 and is the only non-playing member of the LPGA Hall of Fame. Shore died in 1994.
Limited amateur participation: LPGA Chief Tour Operations Office Heather Daly-Donofrio told Golfweek earlier this month, “To broaden competition opportunities for LPGA Tour members as we continue to deal with COVID-19 and to ensure a manageable field size, the 2021 (ANA Inspiration) has limited invitations to the reigning U.S. Women’s Amateur and British Women’s Amateur champions.”
Mair said British Women’s Amateur champion Aline Krauter of Germany, who plays at Stanford, has already accepted her invitation. The ANA Inspiration has had a conflict in the last two years with the new Augusta National Women’s Amateur tournament, with top amateurs having to choose between the two events.
A return to a full field of pros: Several top international golfers, including defending champion Jin Young Ko, did not play in the 2020 ANA Inspiration because of COVID-19 restrictions, quarantines and travel restrictions. Mair said she believes the field will return to full strength in 2021, in part because LPGA changes in 2020 allowing players to essentially freeze their exemption status while not playing during the pandemic are gone this year.
No blue wall: To replace the usual hospitality tent that runs along the back and left of the island green on the par-5 18th hole of the Shore Course, a tent that stops some shots from rolling into the lake surrounding the green, the tournament last September attempted to replicate the backboard with what became known as the Big Blue Wall. That wall became controversial during the week for allowing players to aim for it in safety, so it won’t be part of the 2021 tournament. No structures will surround the green in 2021, just as was the case when the tournament began in 1972.
Larry Bohannan is The Desert Sun golf writer. He can be reached at (760) 778-4633 or email@example.com. Follow him on Facebook or on Twitter at @Larry_Bohannan. Support local journalism: Subscribe to the Desert Sun.
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