Will Inaugural Founders Cup Be “One and Done”?

After winning last year’s Lorena Ochoa Invitational, South Korea’s In Kung Kim, now known as I.K. Kim, donated her entire $220,000 check to charity. It was a gesture that drew international acclaim.

This week, the LPGA is taking this unique concept a step further, as the 132 women playing in the inaugural R.R. Donnelley’s LPGA Founders Cup in Phoenix will donate the entire $1 million purse to charity.

How will it all work out, women playing for “funny money’’ at the J.W. Marriott’s Wildfire Golf Club? Will it be more of an exhibition than a tournament? Will the fact that Michelle Wie is not in the field impact the gate?

Inquiring minds want to know, but chances are great the answers won’t come until Sunday in this 54-hole tournament set to tee off Friday following a star-studded pro-am on Thursday.

The Founders Cup, which honors the 13 original founders of the LPGA, is the brainchild of Michael Whan, the relatively unproven LPGA commissioner who enters his second season at the controls of women’s golf. Granted, his players and others seem to love Whan’s enthusiasm, but the bottom line is the LPGA hasn’t gotten much better from a financial or number-of-tournaments standpoint since Whan became head of the floundering tour left on the brink of disaster by former commish Carolyn Bivens.

“One of the truly exciting things about the 2011 LPGA Tour schedule is the launch of an inaugural event that I just can’t be more excited to tell you about,’’ said the “excitable’’ Whan and only. “It’s the RR Donnelley LPGA Founders Cup. That might sound like a mouthful, but what you’ve got to remember is ‘Founders.’

“You know, at the LPGA we sometimes we forget to look back and remember; appreciate how we got here in the first place. But it’s really pretty simple: Over 60 years ago 13 women came together with a mission. That mission was pretty simple – to empower, inspire and educate young women through the game of golf.’’

But while this new event is “pretty simple’’ for Whan, a lot of the players have yet to figure out just how this new event with its “mock purse’’ is going to shake out. And if the truth be told, there has been some criticism from the ranks even if the field, at least overall, looks solid with three of the top-five players, including Yani Tseng (No. 1), Jiyai Shin (No. 2) and Cristie Kerr (No. 5), headlining the marquee.

But the flip side of that is six of the top-10 players are missing, including Wie ( 8th) and Japanese star Ai Miyazato (6th). Wie, arguably the biggest name in women’s golf and a frequent participant in past LPGA events held in Phoenix, is reportedly taking tests at Stanford this week while gearing up for her sponsor-driven Kia Classic next week near Los Angeles.

Filling the void are players of larger ilk, American stars like Paula Creamer (No. 12), Morgan Pressel (No. 14), Christina Kim (No. 51) and Natalie Gulbis (No. 96), as well as local favorites such as Amanda Blumenherst (No. 80), Pat Hurst (No. 108) and Grace Park (not ranked), a six-time winner who hasn’t played a full season due to injuries in the past three years.

And while most of the women have endorsed the Founders Cup quite heartily, there also has been a bit of a backlash, too, with players like Creamer, Pressel and Kerr voicing their concerns before eventually joining the field. Hey, even the most generous I.K. Kim is not in this week’s field!

“It went from concept to an event on the schedule too quickly,’’ Kerr told the Golf Channel of the tournament that was first mentioned by Whan last summer, hatched in December, and unfolds this week just a little over three months in the making.

“It’s turned what was an opportunity into an obligation.’’ Say this about Kerr, the reigning queen of mean in women’s golf, she never minces words and there’s usually a lot of truth to what she has to say no matter how brutal.

But even Whan realizes he made some initial mistakes before, hopefully, getting it right with $500,000 going to the LPGA Foundation and its LPGA-USGA Girls Golf program and $500,000 to the top-10 finishers’ charities of choice.

“Did we rush it, yes, and I’m not embarrassed about it,’’ Whan told The Arizona Republic. “The idea wasn’t rushed, but like with any tournament, it starts with a corporate sponsor and that didn’t come together until December.’’

So the stage is set, and while it’s not exactly perfect, at least the LPGA is back in the Valley of the Sun after a one-year absence that broke a string of 30 consecutive tournaments dating back to the 1980 Sun City Classic.

The good news is that the field is, for the most part, stellar considering all the women can gain is monopoly money that counts in the standings, as well as a potential berth for the top three finishers who have yet to qualify for the season-ending Titleholders Championship.

And, of course, that Hall of Famers Nancy Lopez, Betsy King and Patty Sheehan will play in the Thursday pro-am as well as compete in an 18-hole exhibition that kicks off the tournament Friday at 7:15 a.m.

Oh, yes, and three of the original founders – Louise Suggs, Shirley Spork and Marilynn Smith – will be on hand to share in the festivities. Smith, an adorable octogenarian who lives in Litchfield Park, is worth the price of admission ($20) alone.

The bad news is that the players, including a bunch of rookies like local up-and-comers Kimberly Kim, Jennifer Johnson and Tucson’s Sara Brown, won’t make any money in a year where they will only get into eight or 10 tournaments on the LPGA’s very limited 24-tournament schedule. In fact, like Lopez, King and Sheehan they, too, are playing for what amounts to an exhibition money-wise.

The other bummer is that the LPGA secured public parking over at WestWorld in Scottsdale, meaning a lengthy shuttle ride in school buses for those fans that want to make the effort. You wonder if somebody forgot to check out the availability of all those vacant fields along Tatum Boulevard that are just a few minutes away from Wildfire.

There are other major questions that could go either way:

*How large will the crowds be for the week? From 2004-2009 – the first five years at Superstition Mountain Golf & Country Club in Gold Canyon and the last one at Papago Golf Course in Phoenix – over 100,000 fans showed up for each event. But the parking and golf courses were much more accessible than what’s awaiting this week.

*Can Whan and his LPGA staff pull this off despite having just three months to get ready at a golf course that’s never hosted a pro tournament? Will the infrastructure – stands, food and drink, porta-potties, etc. – be there to support the fans that do turn out?

*Will the players be satisfied with their stay in Phoenix? Will they like competing on Wildfire, which is being blended together with the back nine from the Palmer Course (No. 1 through No. 9) and the back nine of the Faldo Course (No. 10 through No. 18)?

And then there is the biggest question mark of them all – will the LPGA return to Phoenix in 2012? At the moment, Whan’s grand plan for the Founders Cup calls for it moving back East next year to an RR Donnelley stronghold – Hershey, Pennsylvania – while bringing in a new tournament to Phoenix that is based on the availability of yet another corporate sponsor.

Once again, that’s a lot of “ifs, maybes and buts’’ for the future of the LPGA in Phoenix, a city that Whan and his crew need dearly if they are to get the LPGA back on solid ground.

My suggestion: Savor the moment and enjoy the LPGA while we can.

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