Late LPGA founder Shirley Spork, Detroit native, on minds of Meijer Classic golfers
Outside of the majors, the Meijer LPGA Classic boasts one of the largest purses on the LPGA Tour, at $2.5 million. And it's not lost on the players, who they can thank for that.
There is the growing roster of increasingly supportive sponsors, of course. But way before them, there were the 13 founders of the LPGA. Among those 13 was Detroiter Shirley Spork, who died April 12 at 94.
Spork was a fixture at LPGA Tour events — especially those near her California home, the annual Founders Cup, and the Solheim Cup, where she delighted crowds with her dance moves and her red, white and blue attire — until right before her death.
Jessica Korda recalled a chat they had at the Chevron Championship in Rancho Mirage, Calif., in March.
"I was warming up to play the last round," Korda recalled Tuesday, talking to reporters ahead of next month's Meijer LPGA Classic outside Grand Rapids. "She was sitting ... by the club truck, right by the range, sitting there in the shade. I had already started my warmup, and I never, ever go and talk to anyone after I've started my warmup. But I saw her there and something in there was, like, I've gotta go say hi to her.
"I said hi and we talked for a little bit. She's like, 'I'll see you at the Founders (Cup, May 12-15), that'll probably be my last one.' ... She passed away two weeks later.
"I'm so sad that she's gone, but also so appreciative of what she and the ladies did for our Tour."
Spork grew up on the old Bonnie Brook Golf Course at 8 Mile and Telegraph, hawking golf balls, sodas and candy bars to the golfers, until she had enough pocket change to buy her own clubs — or, club, rather. She started with just a putter.
She went on to be a star golfer at Michigan State Normal College, now Eastern Michigan, winning the 1947 national individual championship, and finishing runner-up in 1948.
In 1950, thanks to the urging of the legendary Babe Zaharias to turn pro, she was one of 13 founders of the LPGA. With her death, only one survives — Marlene Bauer Hagge, who is 88.
Megan Khang first meet Spork during her rookie year, in 2016, at the Founders, which was in Arizona. Spork was sitting off of a green, in a golf cart.
"I go over and introduce myself. She doesn't know me, I go up there and she's like, 'Come sit in the golf cart with me,'" Khang said, with a laugh.
Khang was quite sure she wasn't allowed.
"It's OK," Spork said, "I'm a founder." So Khang hopped into the cart, took a picture and quickly hopped out. Spork told her to birdie in.
"I birdied that hole," Khang said. "But I didn't birdie in."
It was only the eighth hole, after all.
In the grand scheme of things, the Meijer LPGA Classic is a youngin in terms of LPGA history. This year's tournament, June 16-19 at Blythefield Country Club in Belmont, will be the eighth playing. But you really get a strong sense that the tournament has a long, long future ahead of it, and could end up having the type of storied history like the tournament in Sylvania, Ohio, which is closing in on four decades.
The Meijer LPGA Classic routinely draws some of the LPGA Tour's largest and rowdiest crowds, which last year saw Nelly Korda win a shootout to kick off a banner year with four Tour wins, including a Women's PGA Championship, plus an Olympic gold medal and a rise to the No. 1 ranking in the world. (The Meijer is hopeful Korda will play next month; she's been out because of a blood clot in her arm.)
It was fitting, really, that last year's Meijer LPGA Classic was the first LPGA Tour event to have the full crowds back from COVID-19 (which canceled the 2020 Meijer), and Meijer officials — with expanded hospitality food and beverage offerings this year, including opening up the popular Grand Taste to all ticket-holders — expect crowds to potentially be their best ever, this year.
The LPGA Tour, which saw its Solheim Cup draw 130,000 fans at Inverness Club in Toledo last fall, has come from when Spork and 12 other bold women decided sports needed a women's golf league.
And current LPGA Tour players haven't forgotten, and won't forget.
"It's a great idea to have Founders events so that we can familiarize ourselves with those ladies and meet those ladies," Brittany Lang said. "It's an honor.
"We have to know where we came from, where the Tour came from."
Meijer LPGA Classic
When: June 16-19
Where: Blythefield Country Club, Belmont
Defending champion: Nelly Korda
Tickets: Starting at $10 daily; details at www.meijerlpgaclassic.com
Champions: Senior PGA Championship, Benton Harbor, May 26-19
LPGA: Meijer LPGA Classic, Belmont, June 16-19
LPGA: Great Lakes Dow Invitational, Midland, July 13-16
PGA: Rocket Mortgage Classic, Detroit, July 28-31
Champions: Ally Challenge, Grand Blanc, Aug. 26-28
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