First impressions: LPGA players like Papago

   When the LPGA tournament in Phoenix moved from Hillcrest Golf Club to the Arizona Biltmore in1983, and from the Biltmore to Moon Valley Country Club in ’87, it took some getting used to, absolutely. And certainly there was culture shock when the event jumped from the Moon and landed on a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course in the far East Valley called Superstition Mountain Golf and Country Club in 2004.
   But nothing in the tournament’s 30-year history has prepared it for its current juncture at the newly rebuilt Papago Golf Course on the border of Phoenix, Scottsdale and Tempe. For the first time, the LPGA is picking up the costs from a lost title sponsor, and unlike almost any other course in the Valley this time of year, Papago is free.
   In a lot of ways, this relationship between the Papago and the LPGA is like a shotgun marriage: You just hope it works out. The tournament seems so different, and yet it’s not.
  The players competing here are pretty much the same as a year ago, with the big exception being the absence of Annika Sorenstam, the three-time winner of this event that is now called the J Golf Phoenix LPGA International presented by Mirassou Winery.  Alas, Annika has retired.
    Oh, yes, and Michelle Wie is back after a three-year absence. The “Big Wiesy” played previously in 2004 and ’05 in what then was called the Safeway International at Superstition Mountain.
     That’s probably the thing that’s hardest to get used to: The venue is radically and dramatically different, with Papago being almost the anti-course to the elite Prospector Course at Superstition Mountain, voted three straight years by the pros as the LPGA’s finest fairways and facility. Papago is green enough and the grass is thick enough, but you can’t spin the ball as evidenced by the lack of ball marks, and there still are a lot of desert areas that might be declassified as, well, dirt.
     Lorena Ochoa, who is shooting for her third consecutive title here in Phoenix, a feat that would move her alongside Sorenstam and leave her one win shy of Laura Davies’ record four in a row, is the subplot. The Mexican superstar, who lost a heart-breaker Sunday in her homeland to Scottsdale’s Pat Hurst on the final hole, had this grounded assessment of the “new digs’’ at Papago.
    “I like (the course). It’s going to be fun,’’ Ochoa said, pointing out that Papago is playing short despite the length being stretched to 6,711 yards.
    “It’s so hard and dry that you’re going to have to hit a lot of soft shots, especially chipping around these greens. And the putting is pretty fast, too.’’
    As for taking away her seemingly home-course advantage at Superstition Mountain, Ochoa laughed and quickly slammed any such suggestion.
     “I don’t look at it like that,’’ she said. “I play every week to win, no matter where I’m at or whether I’ve won there already or not. That’s how I always play: to win.
     “There’s no real advantage or disadvantage to any certain course because we’re all playing the same course . . . and this is a great one.’’
      Ochoa didn’t have to compliment Papago, but she did. So did Hurst.
     “I played it two weeks ago, and I can tell you the greens have gotten a lot faster since then,’’ noted Hurst, who won for the 16th time in her career, the first since 2006.
     “Overall the golf course is looking good. Really, it’s going to be interesting to see what the (winning) score will be. It’s hard to make birdies out there, because it’s hard to get close (to the pins).’’
     Even Wie was catching on to the idea that organizers have sped up Papago’s greens this week for the biggest deal since the course hosted the 1971 U.S. Public Links Championship. And Wie also likes it!
     “The course is in great condition, and it’s gotten even better since I played it Sunday,’’ said Wie, who is competing in her second event as a card-carrying member of the LPGA, her earlier appearance in February producing a runner-up finish in Hawaii.
     “It’s a tricky track, with big slopes around the greens and lots of movement (in the fairways). It’s pretty firm. . . . I have no idea (what the scores will be).’’
     Wie said she had trouble recalling her first two trips to Phoenix, which ended with a tie for 19th in 2004 followed by a tie for 12th.
    “I don’t really remember much,’’ shrugged Wie, who turns 20 in October. “I remember the greens were really fast, and the course was really nice.’’
     Wie, like a lot of teens, has a way with words. Papago certainly will offer a day-and-night contrast, but not just for Wie. All the players will have to show a little restraint from time to time when their ball ends up in one of Papago’s not-so-pretty places.
     How The Golf Channel portrays Papago’s face-lift will be interesting because there are some raw and rugged areas that will come into play. Or perhaps TGC will ignore them and concentrate on the course’s better features like panoramic shots of Camelback Mountain, the Four Peaks, and the Phoenix skyline, as well as the beautiful buttes of the same name.
   For now, most of the LPGA players seem to be OK with Papago, which is a very good thing in terms of first impressions. Whether that attitude is shared by the LPGA fans, who last year turned out 150,000 strong at Superstition Mountain, remains to be seen.
    One thing is certain, we’ll know a lot more by the time the last putt drops on Sunday.