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LPGA returns to Classic setting

There is plenty of "new" to what I consider, next to Civil War football, the greatest annual sporting event in our state.

There is a new venue, an expanded number of holes and perhaps a greater sense of urgency for success at the box office in the 42nd annual LPGA Safeway Classic Aug. 29-Sept. 1 at Columbia Edgewater Country Club.

After four years at Pumpkin Ridge, the Safeway Classic returns to Columbia Edgewater for the first time since 2008. And for the first time in its history, the event will be four days and 72 holes instead of three days and 54 holes.

The move back to Columbia Edgewater coincides with the bump up to 72 holes, meaning what was a two-day pro-am at Pumpkin becomes a one-day pro-am at C-E.

"When we had two days of pro-am while at Columbia, we were using both Riverside and Columbia, which was difficult logistically," says tournament director Tom Maletis of Tournament Golf, Inc. "And with all its vendor needs and tents and displays, Safeway had outgrown the real estate availability (at C-E).

"But Safeway has cut back its needs in that regard. There will still be a tent, but not of the magnitude of the past. It gave us an opportunity to look again at Columbia."

The LPGA, which has only one other 54-hold event on tour, has been pushing TGI to increase to 72 holes for years. It's a good change that will allow fans to see one more counting day of play and offer more drama at Columbia, a course with a storied tradition that Maletis says is popular with the women pros. Maletis says in 2008 — the last time the Safeway Classic was held there — LPGA players voted it their favorite course on the tour.

"I've been at four (LPGA) events since we made the decision to come back to Columbia," he says. "I'm amazed at how many positive comments the golfers had about it. Nothing against Pumpkin Ridge — it's an excellent course, and they were very good to us. But the players really like Columbia."

Safeway returns as title sponsor for the 18th year, a great statement by the grocery chain that has put millions of dollars of support into the event over the years. The purse has shrunk a little — from $1.5 million a year ago to $1.3 million — but most of the world's top players will be here. As of last weekend, nine of the top 10 money-winners, and 92 of the top 100, are on board.

That includes Inbee Park, the 25-year-old South Korean who has taken the LPGA circuit by storm over the past year and a half. Park, the top money-winner and Vardon Trophy winner a year ago, won the first three majors this year before losing at the recent Women's British Open. She still can become the first woman to win four majors in a calendar year when she plays in the Evian Championship in September.

Also back is Mika Miyazato, who shot 13-under 203 at Ghost Creek to win last season. Brittany Lincicome and Park tied for second at 205.

This year's Safeway Classic has been moved back a week to make room for the Solheim Cup, played last week at Parker, Colo. The Canadian Open, held at Edmonton, Alberta, this week, assumes the slot the Safeway Classic has held in recent years.

The problem with that is the Safeway event now bumps heads in Saturday's third round with the football season openers for Oregon and Oregon State, both at home.

"I''m concerned a little bit about it," Maletis concedes. "It would have affected us a lot more if we still had a three-day event, though. A lot of times, our biggest day is Friday. By having four days of tournament proper, we still have three days of options for football fans who want to watch the tournament. In the overall picture, we're going to get more people out there."

There's no better sports bargain for the state's sports fans. A one-day ticket costs $10 -- a two-for-one deal makes it $5 a ticket -- and a season pass is $25. That's affordable to anyone interested in watching world-class talent. And make no mistake about it, LPGA players are world-class talent.

C-E's tight, tree-lined course places a premium on accuracy.

"It's going to take someone who can drive and keep the ball in the fairway," Maletis says.

The Safeway Classic has huge cred on the LPGA Tour. With the Kraft Nabisco Championships at Mission Hills, Calif., it is tied for the longest-running event on the circuit.

I covered my first LPGA tournament in Portland in 1975, the event's fourth year. Jo Ann Washam won what was then billed as the $30,000 Portland Ladies Classic at Portland Golf Club, taking home $4,500.

Since then, I've witnessed most of the events and have seen all of the game's top names, including champions Kathy Whitworth, JoAnne Carner, Nancy Lopez, Annika Sorenstam and Lorena Ochoa.

Maletis and the TGI officials do a splendid job of running a first-class tournament. About 80,000 fans came through the turnstiles to watch last year's event, evidence there is plenty of interest among our state's sports fans.

I worry that Safeway will pull sponsorship after this season of the tournament that has raised more than $17 million for charities through the years. If that happens, I'm hopeful Maletis and Co. will come up with another sponsor that deems it a worthwhile endeavor. It's an event the sports fans in this state can't afford to lose.

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Twitter: @kerryeggers




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