BREAKOUT: Want to go box
WANT TO GO?
What: 32nd annual State Farm Classic LPGA golf tournament
Where: Panther Creek Country Club near Springfield
When: Friday-Sunday ($20 at the gate). Awards ceremony after Sunday's final round, about 3 p.m.
Directions: Park ($5 per vehicle) at Prairie Crossing shopping center, off Illinois 4 between Springfield and Chatham and take shuttle buses to the course. Parking opens at 5 a.m. daily. No parking in Panther Creek subdivision.
Top players in the field include: Annika Sorenstam (2006 tournament winner), Nancy Lopez, Mi Hyun Kim, Michelle McGann, Barb Mucha, Liselotte Neumann, Grace Park, Karrie Webb, Sherri Steinhauer
It’s the final week of August, and that means the 32nd annual LPGA State Farm Classic is under way in Springfield.
So, what else is new?
How about everything?
Other than its annual Labor Day weekend time slot, little about the Classic has carried over from a year ago. The tournament, known for its continuity in an ever-changing LPGA Tour, finally has yielded to the “C” word in a big way.
“If we can change it, and it makes sense, we’re changing it,” said Kate Peters, in her first year as the Classic’s executive director. “We’re doing a lot of things differently.”
The major switch, moving the four-day tournament to private Panther Creek Country Club, means a variety of other changes for players and fans alike. After being held at The Rail Golf Course, a public facility in Sherman, for the previous 31 years, the 2007 Classic will be a new experience for everyone involved.
For fans who have attended the Classic over the years, it will mean parking somewhere other than the golf course for the first time. Now, the Classic is similar to the majority of pro golf events, with a park-and-shuttle arrangement at the Prairie Crossing shopping center about a mile up Illinois 4, between Springfield and Chatham.
Spectators, and even caddies and tourney volunteers, will be required to park at Prairie Crossing. Tournament chairman John Eck Jr. said patrons need to allow some extra time with the new arrangement. Buses for spectators are slated to arrive and depart at 15-minute intervals.
But Kevin Curtis, the owner of Executive Sports LLC, a Georgia-based company that develops operational plans for professional golf events, said the shuttle system still will be better than many other tournaments in terms of proximity.
“Over the years I’ve been in this business,” Curtis said, “most events are busing in spectators from a lot farther distance than from where we’ll be shuttling in spectators at the State Farm Classic.”
For the 144 golfers competing this week, the new site will mean more than just playing bentgrass fairways instead of The Rail’s rye/bluegrass mix. Panther Creek, which opened in 1992, offers more spacious locker room facilities and dining accommodations in the clubhouse than what The Rail could provide.
As for the course itself, bentgrass tends to hold up through hot, humid Midwestern summers better than some other grasses.
The move to Panther Creek marks the first year of a three-year contract between local tournament officials and the LPGA. The event will continue with its traditional Labor Day weekend slot next year as well.
But as Eck notes, this year’s Classic could get a shot in the arm from the novelty of a new venue.
“Kate said awhile back that there are some people in central Illinois still not familiar with the fact there’s been an LPGA tournament held here for 31 years,” Eck said. “Similarly, a lot of people in the Springfield area haven’t seen Panther Creek Country Club.
“I think it adds to our ability to draw crowds to the tournament.”
Peters emphasized that Panther Creek’s willingness to host a weeklong pro event has meant concessions not only by the members and by residents of the upscale Panther Creek subdivision, but by the tournament as well. She said this year’s operating budget is $2.5 million, about a $500,000 increase from a year ago.
Some of that increased budget has been earmarked simply for image purposes.
“Chris Noonan, the president of the homeowners’ association out here, has been fantastic,” Peters said. “They really want us to succeed, and we appreciate that.”
Dave Kane can be reached at 788-1544 or firstname.lastname@example.org.