Papago gets some \‘love\’ from LPGA

      Even though not everything was picture-perfect at last week’s J Golf Phoenix LPGA International, few people complained. More encouraging, there were a lot of positive things said about the tournament being moved to Phoenix and being played at Papago Golf Course.
     From my perspective, I liked the feel. Fans of all ages turned out to watch players like Lorena Ochoa, Michelle Wie and the eventual champ, Karrie Webb. That they followed their favorites all over the course – on virtually every hole! – was pretty neat, too.
     So what were some of the other reactions to the first-ever LPGA tournament at Papago, a move we hope continues to thrive in the future? Well, here is a diverse sampling starting with the players.
     Naturally, there were a few criticisms, but very few overall. Mostly, the firm greens and inconsistent bunkers took the brunt from players like two-time defending champ Lorena Ochoa and Morgan Pressel, the third member of what I call the “Brat Pack’’ along with Paula Creamer and Natalie Gulbis.
     “I just think it’s not ready yet. It’s new,’’ Pressel said of the course while signing autographs Sunday afternoon. “I had some putts bounce out (of the cup), so it gets a little frustrating. And it’s hard to get close to the pin because the greens are so hard.
    “But it was here or nowhere, so we’re just glad to be here.’’
    Thank you, Morgan. Lorena, did you have trouble getting approach shots close to the pins?
     “Well, if you find someone who didn’t, let me know,’’ Ochoa said with a spunky smile. “But overall, I liked Papago a lot. No complaints.’’
    That was pretty much the general reaction: People liked Papago but just didn’t think it was quite ready. Not surprising given the course was just four months out of a $6.5 million restoration.
     Laura Davies, who won this tournament four consecutive times back in the mid-1990s, was typical of that line of thinking.
     “I love the layout, it’s very charming and traditional, even if the greens were a little firm and tricky,’’ Davies said. “Seriously, I hope it comes back here next year because I think I can do well on it. This is my kind of golf course.’’
     Christina Kim was even more enthusiastic.
     “The layout is phenomenal,’’ said one of the LPGA’s more colorful players. “I was here six weeks ago and played it, and it’s made leaps and bounds since then.
      “I also love that it’s a muni and that we have this relationship with the city. It’s got kind of a Caddyshack feel to it, and I think that’s really neat! Hey, everything doesn’t have to be absolutely perfect like we get most weeks.’’
       Asked if she thought the lack of amenities like a clubhouse and dressing rooms took away from the event, Kim was taken aback.
       “We’ve got tees, greens and fairways! What more do we need than that? You can’t play the tournament in a locker room!’’
       Obviously, Kim hopes the event will be back at Papago next year.
      “There’s a lot of potential here, and I have full faith that we’ll return,’’ she added. “There is something drastically wrong if (the LPGA) is not playing in Phoenix, Arizona.’’
      Veteran Helen Alfredsson, another “lively’’ type, had this perspective.
      “For not really having a lot of choice, this really has been a very pleasant surprise,’’ said Alfie. “Sure, the conditions were not quite there, not quite what we’re used to, but, come on, it’s new!
      “So the way I look at it is, in times like these, everybody has to make some sacrifices. And, really, we didn’t have to sacrifice much because the fans turned out in good numbers and the course is a good one.’’
      There were others from the golf community who came out to take a peek. One of those was PING CEO John Solheim, who was escorting his 90-year-old mother, Louise, around the course.
     “Oh, I think this is great, really great,’’ said Solheim, who was watching the action at the 18th hole while chatting with one of PING’s top players, long-hitting Bubba Watson who now lives in Scottsdale.
       “It’s a great course and it challenges the gals. Of course, I’m a little partial to Moon Valley (where the tournament was held for 16 years), but I think this is really a great central location with lots of good freeway access for everybody to get here.
       “Papago Park is such a beautiful spot and it’s so Arizona. I bet those buttes look beautiful on TV, too.’’
       Pia Nilsson, the noted Swedish instructor who teams with another acclaimed instructor, Lynn Marriott, at their Vision 54 School in Phoenix, also thought the move to Papago from the far East Valley was a solid one.
      “I was thinking (about the move) yesterday, and I realized how much I like it here in the center of the city,’’ Nilsson said. “It’s now a tournament for everybody, and I just love that.
     “I hope the City of Phoenix realizes what a gold mine this could become, and that it returns here next year and the years to come.’’
      That would certainly make some of the tournament’s youngest fans very happy indeed. Unlike the FBR Open, the J Golf Phoenix International attracted a lot of little kids, especially little girls.     
     “It’s really cool to be out here and see them play and get their autographs,’’ said Ellie Porman, a nine-year-old from Gilbert. “This will be one of my favorite memories – especially if I get their autograph.’’
      Ashlynne O’Neal, a seven-year-old from Tempe, also was having a field day getting players’ to sign her hat.
      “My sister is a professional golfer, so I see a lot of her friends out here,’’ said Ashlynne, whose older sister is Blair O’Neal who played for Arizona State and soon will star in the latest version of The Golf Channel’s Big Break series.
      Asked if she was going to be a professional golfer when she grew up, Ashlynne had to think a moment.
      “I’m not really sure yet if I’m going to do that or not,’’ she said, putting a finger to her lips in contemplation. “But I do like getting autographs and watching them play. This is way fun.’’
      Apparently a lot of people agreed with Ashlynne, as an estimated 39,000 fans turned out for the final round, boosting the gate to 131,000 for the week. It was a nice start to a new beginning, everyone agreed.