LPGA to play flip-flopped Papago

      In a move that was as positive as it was practical, organizers have decided to flip-flop the nines at Papago Golf Course for the upcoming J Golf Phoenix LPGA International presented by Mirassou Winery.
      That means the 72-hole tournament with the longest name in women’s golf will end on a relatively easy, 475-yard par 5 rather than a demanding 411-yard par 4. The women will need it, as organizers also have decided to stretch the newly renovated course out for the March 26-29 event to 6,711 yards.
      By comparison, last year the same tournament was contested at 6,662 yards at Superstition Mountain Golf and Country Club. And while the LPGA doesn’t like to get into the yardage debate, only one of its major championships last year was longer – the U.S. Women’s Open at Interlachen Country Club, which rolled out to 6,789 yards.
     Chances are length won’t be a big deal at Papago, as the par 3s range from 158-219 yards, the par 4s from 326-431 yards, and the par 5s from 475 to 544 yards – all very manageable. And there wasn’t a lot of “give’’ as to where the tournament finished, as the regular 18th hole at Papago is located in too tight of quarters around the green to fit both TV towers and a VIP tent.
    Tom Maletis, the president of the Portland-based Tournament Golf Foundation that runs the event, said he thinks moving the 18th hole to No. 9 and adding some yardage were both “good moves.’’
    “It gives the players a good chance to end their day with a birdie or eagle, and spectator-wise, the fans will have a wonderful opportunity to see that finishing hole all the way from tee to green,’’ he said of the straightaway, uphill par 5. “So in my opinion, it’s a win-win. . . .
    “As for the (increased yardage), the course is so firm and fast because of the newness that we wanted to keep it a good test, and that’s why it’s a little long by LPGA standards. But as far as how it’s going to play, it won’t play that long.’’
    Yardage aside, don’t be surprised if Papago proves to be a tad on the brutal side, at least scoring-wise. That certainly was the conclusion you might have drawn after what happened last Friday during the Phoenix LPGA International Amateur Open, an 18-hole event that awarded the winner a spot in the 144-player field.
    Better known as the “College Qualifier’’ because the event is mostly made up of Arizona State, Arizona and UCLA players along with a few top juniors, only two out of 23 players broke par. And those two players – ASU’s Carlota Ciganda and Peoria teen-ager Alex Stewart – finished birdie-birdie-birdie and birdie-par-birdie, respectively, to gain spots in the playoff with 3-under-par 69s.
   Ciganda, a freshman from Spain whose resume includes the 2007 British Amateur Championship, was the winner with yet another birdie on the first hole. And the 17-year-old Stewart also will get another shot at making the field, as her runner-up finish entitles her to a berth in the pre-tournament LPGA qualifier against the pros.
   But there were some shocking scores from the other 21 players. For instance, ASU’s Azhara Munoz, the reigning college player of the year and the 2008 U.S. Amateur runner-up, could do no better than 79. And 2007 U.S. Amateur champ Maria Jose Uribe shot 75, as the average score ballooned to 77.56.
   Having played Papago last weekend, I can tell you where the trouble is (and isn’t). Mostly, it lurks on and around the revamped greens, which are bigger and bolder and still showing signs of newness. Fluffy bunkers tend to bury balls, and the thinly grassed surfaces make for quick and sometimes unpredictable results for both approach shots and putts.
   Not that those inconsistencies won’t be fixed by the time the LPGA shows up, as its agronomy team already is working fast and furious. A couple of more weeks of water and sun also will go a long way in greening the golf course even if several unsightly desert areas won’t be groomed in time.
   Other elements also are coming together, like a temporary tent locker room for the players that spans somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 feet by 100 feet. And a VIP tent area overlooking the new 18th hole, which is a little less than half the size of the massive structure used for the past five years at Superstition Mountain.
   All in all, organizers are well on their way to pulling off the J Golf Phoenix LPGA International presented by Mirassou Winery, which is somewhat of a miracle considering they only got started on the process two months ago. Now, if they can just shorten the name WHEN and IF they come up with a new title sponsor, I think this shotgun marriage between Papago and the LPGA will eventually start to bloom.
     I know that one person in particular, ASU assistant coach Missy Farr-Kaye, agrees with me. Farr-Kaye, who just two weeks ago returned to the Sun Devils after undergoing successful cancer treatment, said she likes what she sees at Papago these days.
  “Oh, I think everything they’ve done here has turned out really great, even if I do miss all those big, beautiful trees that were once here,’’ said Farr-Kaye, who grew up playing Papago as a kid with her late sister, Heather Farr.
   “It’s such a great, traditional golf course . . . Hopefully, the LPGA will like it as much as I do.’’
     That remains to be seen, chiefly because Superstition Mountain, which was located in the far East Valley, was the standard for excellence on the LPGA. In fact, it was voted the best-conditioned course for three straight years prior to Safeway pulling its tournament sponsorship last year and, ultimately, the course tumbling into a financial abyss.
     Now, the LPGA will have to be patient as Papago gently works its way through the renovation process. In that regard, leave it to Farr-Kaye to put the entire situation in perspective.
    “It’s just great to have the LPGA back in Phoenix,’’ she said. “You know, it’s been awhile.’’