Grand reopening: LPGA Tour stars thrilled to return to the Meijer

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Belmont, Mich. — Meijer rarely, if ever, closed. Then came the pandemic, and that changed everything, everywhere.

Meijer even had to close up shop on the 2020 LPGA Classic, which returns this week to Blythefield Country Club just northeast of Grand Rapids. There are no capacity restrictions for one of the LPGA Tour's most popular stops among players.

Katherine Kirk

"The Meijer's always a highlight on the schedule," Katherine Kirk, an LPGA Tour veteran from Australia, said recently. "I think folks up in Michigan, maybe because the golf season's so short, they really get behind it. The crowds up there appreciate good golf.

"We're just looking forward to a great week of golf."

This week marks the seventh playing of the Meijer LPGA Classic, which was postponed in 2020, before it eventually was scrapped altogether.

The tournament marks the first major pro golf tournament in Michigan this year. The LPGA also has a stop in Midland, the PGA Tour in Detroit and the Champions Tour in Grand Blanc. The Solheim Cup, women's golf's Ryder Cup, also will be held in the Midwest, in Toledo in September.

The tournament will feature a full field of 144 golfers over four days of competition, including nine of the top 10-ranked players in the world. That includes World No. 1 Jin Young Ko as well as defending champions, from 2019, Brooke Henderson, a two-time winner of the tournament.

They'll take on a renovated Blythefield Country Club, with its expanded greens and reshaped bunkers. The course just opened last month for members, who paid $3.7 million for renovations.

"It's an old classic course for us, we enjoy playing it," said Kirk, who's played in the previous six Meijers, making four cuts and shooting a career-best 64 in 2015. "Obviously, they've made that many changes. It's gonna be like a new golf course."

But the club kept the staples — some short par 4s and reachable par 5s, which lend themselves to low scores, and exciting viewing.

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That viewing will be for the fans in attendance, as well as the TV viewers. For the first time, the Meijer LPGA Classic will be broadcast on CBS. The final round will be on CBS (opposite the men's U.S. Open on NBC), while Golf Channel airs the first three rounds.

That exposure is no small thing, Kirk said.

"I was 12 when I first started golf, and I didn't really get to watch many women's tournaments on TV," said Kirk, 39.

"The fact we could be inspiring this next generation is heartwarming."

Just as heartwarming, Kirk said, is Meijer's efforts to stand with the LPGA Tour, even amid the pandemic. Despite not holding a tournament in 2020, Meijer made a $1.1 million donation to local food banks in 2020, matching its 2019 giving from the event.

Meijer's support of the LPGA Tour is one draw, and the city of Grand Rapids is another. Kirk has fond memories of some nights out at HopCat, and Mojo's Dueling Piano Bar & Restaurant. In 2011, she enjoyed her time in the city while attending the wedding of former LPGA Tour player Allison Fouch Duncan. She got married at the yacht club.

Kirk laughed when saying she tries not to have too many beers during the tournament week, but another draw of the Meijer LPGA Classic is the popular Grand Taste — a Friday-night showcase for Grand Rapids' best food, drink and music, attended by fans, players and caddies alike. Because the state of Michigan's capacity-restriction lifting came too late this year, the Grand Taste has been postponed until next year.

"I figured that might be the case," Kirk said. "Hopefully 2022 we'll be back to normal."

We're on our way, especially with the fans back out in full force this week.

"Certainly, there's way more buzz from the player perspective when we've got people out watching and cheering," said Kirk, a three-time winner on the LPGA Tour. "When you're passionate about what you do, you want to share that with people.

"The last year's been super-challenging."

Meijer LPGA Classic

►When: Thursday through Sunday

►Where: Blythefield Country Club, Belmont

►TV: Thursday-Friday — 10:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m., Golf Channel; Saturday — 3-6 p.m., Golf Channel; Sunday — 2-4 p.m., CBS

►Purse: $2 million (winner: $300,000)

►2019 champion: Brooke Henderson

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984