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LPGA bringing pros back to area with Volvik tournament

Lynn Hennnig
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — It has been a while. Too long, in some views. But pro golf is headed back to southeast Michigan.

Good-sized galleries, too, might be making a comeback. That was a thought Wednesday when several hundred folks packed a banquet room at Travis Pointe Country Club as LPGA officials announced a 2016 event, the Volvik Championship, which will be played Memorial Day weekend at a lovely private club just south of Ann Arbor.

“If you think you’ve been to a golf event before, I promise I’ll change you,” said LPGA commissioner Mike Whan as he, his staff, and three LPGA players — Katherine Kirk, Amy Anderson and Victoria Elizabeth — charmed a room jammed with members and community golf fiends.

The LPGA already has a June event outside Grand Rapids in 2016 and will play again next summer at Toledo. But neither the LPGA nor any pro tour has been seen in southeast Michigan since 2009 when the PGA Tour’s Buick Open called it quits at Grand Blanc.

Major championships and Ryder Cup stops have been just as scarce. The U.S. Amateur will be played next summer at Oakland Hills, but there hasn’t been a major in Michigan since the 2008 PGA Championship and none is scheduled.

Into the void steps Whan’s rising LPGA: purses that have gone from $35 million-$65 million since he arrived six years ago; TV ratings that have tripled; marketing that will be very much on display in Ann Arbor in the coming months, as it was during Wednesday’s high-energy intro at Travis Pointe.

Whan bills the LPGA as a “cool” version of “the Olympics” — with international golf stars who “will be part of your community.”

Right down to players staying in local homes rather than in hotels, this, as Whan said, is a tour designed to make its golfers and its galleries feel a sense of communion unique in sports.

“I’ll be the only one with a rental car,” he said, sharing Wednesday’s stage with his player trio, as well as with local organizer Keith Karbo, whose idea for an Ann Arbor tournament was the seed for next year’s stop.

The golf course will be fine. Bill Newcomb designed it in 1977 and it’s a serious track. U.S. Open and U.S. Senior Open qualifiers, the Michigan Amateur, Women’s Michigan Open — it’s an 18-hole layout that can play to 7,300 yards. But because space is generous, fans lining gallery ropes won’t feel cramped. At the same time, Whan and his tournament staff liked the intimacy of clubhouse, putting green, range, tee boxes, etc., which plays into the psyches and style of this current rendition of LPGA player.

“The big thing is the players,” said Anderson, a LPGA regular who recently passed her exam as a certified public accountant. “On the PGA Tour, you’ve got three-to-four people deep in the galleries. But on the LPGA, they’ll be right along the ropes with the people.

“They’ll sign every single autograph. This is going to be exceptional golf.”

This could be a first step toward men’s Tour golf making Michigan something other than an every-decade-or-two layover.

The Buick Open lost its steam when a car industry at a historical low was forced to retool its budgets and some of its marketing schemes. The PGA of America and the United States Golf Association had been putting Oakland Hills on their rotations. But hosting majors isn’t always popular with members, who deal with disruptions and the loss of their course during a season’s prime time.

There was a serious effort a few years ago to bring a PGA Tour event to Detroit Golf Club. But, it didn’t come together, all because scheduling Tour stops can be perilous for all parties. Desirable dates typically are occupied and too few commitments from too many essential box-office stars (Jordan Spieth, Ricky Fowler, Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, to name a few of today’s must-haves) can mean the difference between success and light turnouts that leave everyone wondering why so much energy and money was expended for so little.

Into this seemingly golf-starved market enters the LPGA with a tourney that will pay $1.3 million and have as its sponsor Volvik, the golf-ball manufacturing newcomer from South Korea that has been making a dent with LPGA players.

Wahn talked Wednesday about cookouts and picnics and parties with this multi-national players cast that is regarded as sympatico with Ann Arbor and its global tastes and ethnicity.

One of those testaments to golf’s intercontinental reach is Kirk, an Australian who has won a pair of LPGA events. She liked the thought on a gorgeous autumn day of seeing Ann Arbor again – late next spring.

“The golf courses here are incredible,” she said in her alluring Aussie accent, speaking of Michigan at-large.

“Maybe it’s because your season’s so short, you all have to make the most of it.”

Good thought. And a good idea by the LPGA to bring pro golf back to this neglected Michigan corner.

LPGA Volvik Championship

Course: Travis Pointe Country Club, Ann Arbor

Dates: May 26-29, 2016

Purse: $1.3 million

Field: 144 players

Tickets: Available Dec. 1