The ShopRite LPGA Classic ripped a hole in the local sports landscape when it unexpectedly folded three years ago.
Now the event is back at one of the most challenging times in LPGA history.
The 54-hole, $1.5 million Classic will be held June 14-20, 2010, at Seaview Resort & Spa’s Bay Course in Galloway Township. The Golf Channel will televise the tournament.
The Classic will compete against the men’s U.S. Open next year, but starting in 2011, it will be held the weekend after Memorial Day.
The Classic folded in 2006 because of a dispute over dates with then-LPGA Commissioner Carolyn Bivens.
“The event did not leave because it wasn’t successful,” new tournament Executive Director Tim Erensen said in a telephone interview. “We hope to have as long and as successful a run as the previous (management) group. The players loved it. ShopRite loved being here.”
The Classic and the LPGA have agreed on five one-year contracts with opt-outs for both sides after each year, according to Erensen.
The tournament returns at a time when there are signs of the LPGA’s troubles everywhere.
The players forced Bivens to resign in July because they were unhappy with her performance.
The LPGA is struggling to fill its 2010 tournament schedule. The tour had 34 events in 2008 and 27 this year. But several tournaments announced they will not be back next year, most notably the Michelob Ultra Open in Virginia, which was a tour stop for 22 years and considered by many players as a fifth major tournament.
There was a fear that the LPGA would have fewer than 20 tournaments in 2010 and more and more of those events would be held outside the United States. The LPGA will announce next year’s schedule Wednesday.
But the LPGA’s struggles are one reason Erensen wanted to bring the Classic back to southern New Jersey. The tour needs domestic events, so why not revive a successful one?
“I think there’s been an obvious push for full-field domestic events for the LPGA,” he said.
There are also some positive signs for the LPGA.
The tour put Bivens’ controversial three-year reign behind it when it named Michael Whan its new commissioner in October. Whan is a veteran marketing executive who once worked for the equipment company TaylorMade Golf.
The LPGA got its biggest media response of the year this past weekend when phenom Michelle Wie earned her first LPGA victory.
The 20-year-old Wie, who has played in PGA Tour events and became a professional a week before her 16th birthday in 2005, is one of the few LPGA golfers whose name is recognizable to the average sports fan. If she is successful, she would broaden the tour’s appeal.
“I think the worst of the storm is over for the LPGA,” Erensen said. “I think there’s excitement with the new leadership, and Michelle Wie winning is exactly what the LPGA needs.
“Hopefully, the LPGA is in a stronger position in 2010. We wanted to take advantage of that and get on the schedule and begin to re-establish (the Classic).”
ShopRite, which had sponsored the Classic since 1992, was not deterred by the LPGA’s troubles. Karen Meleta, spokeswoman for ShopRite, said the company jumped at the chance to have the tournament back in the Atlantic City area.
“We never wanted to leave Atlantic City,” she said. “Circumstances made that happen. When we were presented with an opportunity to return, we couldn’t resist. We’re coming back home.”
The Classic began in 1986. The tournament developed into one of the state’s biggest sporting events.
The world’s best women golfers, such as Annika Sorenstam, Cristie Kerr and Juli Inkster, wowed fans. Wie created a media sensation when she played in the Classic in 2003 as a 13-year-old.
The Classic did not release attendance figures, but the grandstands around the 18th hole always were packed with fans during the final round. The Classic donated more than $12 million to charity in its history. Players stayed with local families and struck up friendships.
That’s why it was a shock when the tournament folded in 2006. The dispute that pitted Classic executive director Ruth Harrison and, her husband, General Chairman Larry Harrison against Bivens made national headlines.
The Classic wanted to continue to be held the first weekend in June. But Bivens gave those dates to a new tournament — The Ginn Tribute hosted by Annika Sorenstam. That South Carolina event folded after just two years.
The Classic will be held the first weekend in June, starting in 2011.
The Harrisons are not involved with bringing the Classic back to the area. They declined to comment through former Classic spokesman Rodger Gottlieb on Monday night. Erensen said that he plans to have lunch with Ruth Harrison today.
Erensen, 36, has been involved with the LPGA and professional golf since the mid-1990s.
He was an executive with Octagon Worldwide Inc., a sports management company that ran several LPGA events, including the Sybase Classic presented by ShopRite, which was held in May at Upper Montclair Country Club the past two years. That tournament folded earlier this year.
Erensen had a relationship with ShopRite from his days of running the Sybase event. He approached the company last summer about revitalizing the Classic.
“All the stars aligned,” he said.
Erensen said announcements would be made in the next few weeks to round out the tournament’s staff.
“We do have a world of respect for what Ruthie and Larry (Harrison) did,” he said, “but we’re looking to start out with a clean slate.”
One of the dates the Classic refused from the LPGA three years ago was the spot against the men’s U.S. Open. The LPGA did not have a tournament in that spot this year.
Erensen said he didn’t mind competing with the U.S. Open for one year. He noted the Open would be played at Pebble Beach in California and will be televised in prime time long after the Classic has finished for the day.
Much has changed in the LPGA in the three years since the Classic disappeared. Many of the players who drew big crowds here have faded from the scene. Sorenstam retired.
But everyone connected with the new version of the Classic is confident the tournament will thrive again.
“We have a lot of loyal fans and being able to go back up to that area is beneficial for us,” said Jason Taylor, LPGA media relations coordinator. “We’ve had a few years but get us back up there, and we’ll show we can still draw a big market.”
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