The Next Big Leap

The history behind the LPGA’s major move proves that evolution always trumps tradition
Poppie's Pond The Next Big Leap

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If you enter “Dottie Pepper + pond + sick” into your search engine, a murky, nauseating story unfolds. Upon winning the 1999 Nabisco Dinah Shore, Pepper performed the ceremonial duty for champions of what many consider the LPGA’s most important tournament and leapt, fully clothed, into the pond near the 18th green at Mission Hills Country Club. Despite knowing that winners had been doing this since 1988, tournament officials at that point hadn’t really given much thought to that pond—but the duck population of Rancho Mirage, California, certainly had. As such, the cloudy lagoon was a far cry from the shimmering pools found in the backyards of the massive houses along the course. “She surfaced spitting green stuff that she could not identify,” The New York Times diligently reported. That led to a serious bacterial infection, which knocked Pepper out of action for the next six weeks. “In hindsight, it was worth it,” Pepper told the Times, because she is one of golf’s all-time badasses.

This led to a physical and philosophical scrubbing of the pond, and, as is often the case when something becomes “cool” in professional golf, over the next several years the grassroots tradition became a staged jump into a specially built clear-water pool, television cameras properly placed. Sure, some of the spontaneity was gone, but on the plus side, no one needed to be swabbed for a post-plunge infectious disease. And even in this sanitized version, there is no disputing that golf will lose something when the LPGA moves this storied major to Houston next year under its new Chevron Championship moniker. But what, exactly?

As someone who grew up in the Coachella Valley going to The Dinah and The Hope, this news crushed me. Those wide-eyed Mission Hills trips provided my first buzz of a big-game crowd and ingrained the fact that firing darts into a green is not a gender-specific skill. (I’ll never forget one year when I wandered behind the 16th green and got an up-close view of what a real party looks like: One of the largest annual events in the lesbian community sprung from this tournament.)

But not long after I indulged in the sweet memory of me and a few punk buddies jumping the country club walls one night to do some of the most fun and spectacularly inept fishing of our lives (those ponds were truly horrifying), a cold reality set in: The tournament had to move. Bigger purse, more corporate support, better slot on the calendar, increased TV coverage. Can’t argue that.

Then, an even harsher truth. If you search “Masters golf parade,” you will discover another tradition that folks adored, but is no longer with us. The pictures from the Masters Golf Parade through downtown Augusta are charming in that ridiculous 1950s way: a float from the local baker with women smiling from 10-foot-tall slices of bread (the swimming-pool-size jug of pimiento cheese must have been just out of frame); Bobby Jones waving to tens of thousands of people from a yacht-length convertible Cadillac. City leaders thought it would grow to rival the Tournament of Roses and Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parades. It lasted seven years. It happens.

Fans just getting hooked on the game—hello and welcome! I’d like to formally apologize for Patrick Reed and basically every pair of pants from the 1990s—will soon learn about Jones and his staggering achievement of winning the Grand Slam in 1930. They will be surprised to discover that, back then, the “impregnable quadrilateral” was made up of the U.S. Open, the Open Championship, the U.S. Amateur and the British Amateur. The 14-year-old PGA Championship was not yet considered good enough, and the Masters didn’t even exist; it would be four years until Jones and Clifford Roberts would conjure the thing out of thin air and an old Georgia fruit nursery. 

Ever heard of the Western Open? This tournament is so old that when it was launched in 1899, host cities like Chicago and Cleveland were considered in “the West” because, holy shit, in those days it might take a week to get to LA and San Francisco. It quickly became a powerhouse on the early 1900s golf scene, and every online search will tell you that while the designation hadn’t yet been coined, Jones and the rest of that era’s stars considered it a major event.

The Western Open still exists. Sort of. It has undergone myriad transformations, and today you know it as the BMW Championship, the first event of the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup playoff series, which was conjured out of thin air in 2007.

These are not necessarily bad developments. More than anything, they show that for a game so supposedly rooted in tradition, it is constantly, inexorably moving. Evolution is in golf’s DNA every bit as much as a hickory shaft. And for every tradition that fades away, wonderful new things can take root. You won’t find many who are upset about the invention of the Masters. Advancing equipment technology has allowed an untold number of players to enjoy the game when previously they could not. 

“People may hate it and view the [LPGA’s] move as trading 50 years of tradition for a few extra million bucks, but they had to do it,” says Larry Bohannan, who has been the golf beat reporter at the Desert Sun in the Coachella Valley for the last 36 years. (To give you an idea of his longevity, Dinah Shore’s name was on the event for 22 of those years.) “I understand it.”

Bohannan can tell you exactly where Betsy King holed out from the greenside bunker on 16 in her 1987 win. His voice still picks up a little pace when he talks about Helen Alfredsson’s bomb on No. 8 on her way to victory in 1993. He remembers Karrie and Lexi and Lydia. He, like me, is sad. We can wish them well, but that doesn’t make it any easier that the LPGA broke up with our hometown. With us!

“The record books will now say Annika Sorenstam won the Chevron Championship three times,” he says, his voice turning steely. “Well, no, she didn’t. She won here.”

What golf loses in moves like these is a little of that wide-eyed enthusiasm of youth. Bohannan and I and the rest of the jilted are forced to face the reality that while we love this game, now more than ever it’s a business first. It can still love you back, but mostly if you’re in the right market.

Nevertheless, I hope some kid in Houston walks along the ropes next year and falls hopelessly for the game. I’m trying not to look back in anger. That’s a lyric from a band named Oasis. Worth a search. Big in ’99 when Dottie jumped in that nasty pond because she wanted to, not because she was supposed to.