When Mike Whan took over as commissioner in 2010 the LPGA schedule was as thin as a desert coyote after a bone-dry summer. Among the missing was golf-passionate Phoenix, a tour fixture since 1980. But a decade later, the Valley of the Sun shines once again for the LPGA and the Volvik Founders Cup glitters as a celebration of the past and promise for the future.
That the 70th birthday of the LPGA and the tenth Founders Cup fall on the same year is a happy – and logical – coincidence. This tournament that honors the 13 women who created the LPGA and the pioneers who grew it came along when a global economic crisis cast doubt upon the future of many institutions, including the oldest, continuous professional sports league for women.
But with one bold move – some said crazy at the time – Whan added a new event for 2011, restored the Phoenix stop and, in the Founders Cup, embraced the history of the LPGA. It was a win-win-win situation that started the Tour on the road from 24 tournaments and $41 million in prize money in 2010 to 34 events with more than $75 million this year. The LPGA went from Hold On to Drive On.
Phoenix had been an LPGA stop for 30 years before missing the 2010 season, existing under 10 different names on six courses, starting at Hillcrest Country Club in 1980 and ending at Papago Golf Club in 2009 with a long run at Moon Valley in between. Now it thrives at the Wildfire Golf Club at the JW Marriott Phoenix Desert Ridge Resort and Spa.
To create the Founders Cup, Whan took a chance. With sponsors hard to find during the recession and the Tour needing tournaments to give its players exposure, the first Founders was held without cash payment to the players. Half of the $1 million purse went to charity with the other half designated for charities of the top-10 finishers. Still, virtually all of the eligible players showed up.
“I wanted to ensure the passion of our Founders remains embedded in our current players and staff,” Whan says about his decade-old gamble. “If our Founders taught us anything, it was to reject status quo and drive to leave the game better for young women.”
The tone of the Founders Cup was established by its first winner, Karrie Webb, an LPGA and World Golf Hall of Fame member who also won it in 2014. Founders winners have a combined 26 major titles, including defending champion Jin Young Ko, who took the ANA Inspiration and Evian Championship last year after winning at Desert Ridge.
Each year, the Tour hands its history off to the next generation at the Founders Cup. In the beginning, Louise Suggs and Marilynn Smith sat behind the 18th green to greet players as they finished. This year, the two remaining Founders, Shirley Spork and Marlene Bauer Hagge, will be on hand.
And each year, pioneers like Kathy Whitworth, JoAnne Carner, Nancy Lopez, Patty Sheehan, Betsy King and Pat Bradley are honored. New to the party this year is Volvik, the company that has brought its own boldness to the golf ball market by infusing it with color.
“We are proud to participate as the title sponsor of this event that honors the founders of the LPGA and does so much to grow the game we all love through the LPGA-USGA Girls Golf Program,” said Don Shin, President of Volvik USA. The tournament has raised more than $4 million for the Girl’s Golf program.
“Volvik plays a vital role in growing the game by offering high-quality, attractive golf balls for players of every skill level, and by bringing a wide array of colors and a unique matte finish into the golf ball market,” Shin says.
Since 2015, the person at the helm has been tournament director Scott Wood. He gets the importance of Phoenix to the Tour and understands the passionate relationship the players – many of whom live in the area – have with the community.
“The LPGA has established itself through the years as a must-attend event for Valley residents and visiting fans,” says Wood. “Phoenix is a hot bed for golf on so many levels and to have the support of its residents, visitors and local business community the past 40 years means everything to us.”
This year, the tournament will again host a Women’s Leadership Forum and also celebrate the 70th birthday of the LPGA as well as the tournament’s 10th anniversary with a Founders Museum featuring memorabilia from LPGA legends. This will be the first Founders Cup since the passing of Marilynn Smith on April 9, 2019, just four days shy of her 90th birthday.
Smith, a Phoenix-area resident, raised more than $1 million in college scholarship money for girls since 2009. She’ll be honored with a tribute wall at museum and an open seat at Founders Perch. The 11th Marilynn Smith Charity Pro-Am will be at Wildfire on Sunday, March 15, kicking off Founders Cup week.
“Meeting Marilynn, Shirley, Louise, and Marlene was the inspiration behind the Founders Cup,” said Whan. “I realized their stories and insights might be lost on future generations. I wanted every player to have a similar relationship with these incredible women.”
Whan accomplished more than that. In honoring its Founders and Pioneers, the LPGA also cast a bright spotlight on its current stars. In celebrating the past, the Founders Cup has transitioned the Tour solidly into its eighth decade, making the future anything but in doubt.