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Marc Mason is a freelance writer based in Tempe, AZ.

Saturday, March 28, 2009  
My Day at the LPGA Tournament, or “Why my face is burned to a crisp.”

I’ve made a habit the last few years of hitting the LPGA tournament when it rolls through town. The reasons are many: I love golf (the men and women’s tours both), the tickets are inexpensive (I bought mine online and printed it myself for $17), and the LPGA offers the most fan-friendly experience of any major sporting league. On pretty much every hole today, I walked side-by-side next to the players whose group I was following. The PGA hides their players like they’re in witness protection instead of a professional sport. Plus, each player, upon signing their scorecard, hits the autograph booth. Paging Tiger Woods? Yeah, right.

The past few years, the tournament has been played on a spectacular course out on the fringe of the Valley at Superstition Mountain. The drive was always a pain, but the quality of the course and the tremendous field the event draws always made it worth the hike. But with changes in sponsorship and trouble at the course, it moved this year. To a course about six miles from my house.

That meant I could hop on my bicycle and ride to the tournament, which elevated my mood intensely. Checking the pairings last night, I saw that my favorite player, Christina Kim, was paired with an up-and-comer named Erica Blasberg, teeing off at 9:16am. That meant I basically needed to get out of bed like it was a workday and go- sold!

I arrived at the course around 9am, giving me enough time to get back to hole #1 as the group in front of Kim and Blasberg were preparing to putt out. Soon enough, the green cleared and both Christina and Erica took shots at getting home in two on the opening par five hole. Kim, being one of the longer hitters on the tour, made it to the left fringe, while Blasberg came up a bit short. Erica’s third left her fifteen feet behind the pin for birdie, while Christina’s eagle putt from 60 feet rolled to within five feet. She sank her birdie while her playing partner missed and made par, and they were off and running.

Christina Kim became my favorite player when I first got interested in the LPGA back in 2005. As a Korean-American, she bridges the two national groups the primarily make up the tour; however, when she had the opportunity to play for the United States in the Solheim Cup at Crooked Stick in 2005, you could see just how much it meant to her to have the opportunity to represent the stars and stripes. She played hard, feisty golf, her brash and fun personality lifting the spirits of her playing partners.

And that’s what you notice about Kim- her personality on the course. She seems to remember that golf is her job, but it is also fun. Christina talks to the ball, perhaps hoping to verbally command it to obey her directives. She chats with her playing partners like they’re her best friends. She’s good with the media (and she “gets it” on a number of issues- this is a player who knows how to sublimate her own ego and desires for things that will help the tour) and even better- she’s great with the fans. Who can forget when, at the ADT championship in 2007, she hit a great shot and then turned and did a full jumping side-bump with her caddie as a nod to her pro-am partners that week?

Oh, and today after their round? Blasberg signed autographs for about four minutes before wandering off. Kim stayed and autographed for the entire line, including a number of junior girls golfers. Me? She signed my USGA 2009 Member's US Open hat with a pink Sharpie. That one goes on the shelf, thanks.

Another thing I’ll point out about following this group today: they played fast. The LPGA has a reputation for slow play (and over on the PGA Tour, one of the three slowest players on Earth, Sean O’Hair is leading this weekend), but Kim and Blasberg played with their feet on the pedal. 9:16am tee time, 1:30pm finish. 4 hours, 14 minutes. On three occasions, they were held up by the group in front of them, which means they could have conceivably finished in four hours flat, easy. Last year, when I watched Kim’s group, she was paired with Michelle Redman, who was so slow that she might still be finishing. That’s a key element when going out to watch a golf tournament and finding a group to follow- find out who has a reputation for fast play (or vice versa- find out whom to avoid- you’ve now been warned about Redman).

I was very impressed with the number of kids on the grounds, and for this being the first year that the Papago course is hosting the event, I thought they did a pretty fair job of it. Honestly, this really is a great way to spend your time and hard-earned cash, because you can get so much out of it. Had I purchased online, I could have gotten a five-day pass that covered all four rounds and Wednesday’s pro-am for $64. That’s a sweet deal, no denying it.

There are things the LPGA could be doing better- they need to help their players develop a stronger personal web presence (a player as popular as Kim needs a website, merchandise, fan club, etc., and the tour’s enormous Korean contingent could make huge inroads with American fans by having websites, blogging, the complete enchilada); more players need to start using Twitter (so far, only Natalie Gulbis has taken the plunge, along with the “tour” itself); and I’d like to see the tour get more active about getting players out to other events for publicity. I saw nothing this week about players throwing out first pitches at spring training, for instance, and it seems like that would be a natural. Still, there’s a lot that the tour is doing right, and the proof is in the tournament itself. So do yourself a favor and check it out- you’ll be glad you did. And you could probably use the sunshine! Just make sure your sunscreen holds up… unlike mine.

6:14 PM

It was such a beautiful day yesterday, any excuse to be outside was a good one. I completely agree with you on how being able to bike to an event just gives it that extra "oomf" of loveliness. Glad you had such a great time!
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