Well, the inaugural Meijer LPGA Classic has ended and in light of its many successes it should now take a bow. For a debut tournament, it couldn’t have gone much better for the event held at the fan- and player-friendly Blythefield Country Club outside Grand Rapids. I must admit I was a little concerned a few months ago that not enough marketing and advertising dollars were being spent on the first-year event to turn out a good size gallery. Rest assured, the smart folks at Meijer knew what they were doing, especially with the affordable $15 any day ticket and with kids being admitted free with an adult. I spent four days there last week and was very impressed with how the tournament was organized. Let me share a few observations:
- The LPGA is on a roll right now with a host of attractive stars led by the world’s number one player, Stacy Lewis. What’s smart about sponsoring an LPGA event, is that its stars show up and don’t take a week off. (For first year tourneys, all LPGA players are expected to tee it up.) Players know that supporting a first year tournament is critical for building not only sponsor but fan loyalty. Even Michelle Wie, withdrawing after her first nine holes on Thursday due to a hand injury, didn’t spoil the party in Grand Rapids. Another strong field is expected next year.
- Blythefield Country Club proved very popular with players and fans alike. The players liked its old-timey, classic layout with its open-front greens, modest bunkering, relatively flat greens and fairways, and its strategic dogleg holes. It’s also a comfortable walk especially after one negotiates the uphill 7th hole. Tournament officials also made a good call in reversing the nines for play as the original 10th hole afforded better spectator viewing as a starting hole. Smartly, they retained the club’s ninth and 18th holes as finishers on both sides.
- Transportation to and from the course all went exceedingly well with the general public being bussed to the course from Fifth/Third ballpark and dropped off at a special gate at the first hole. I didn’t hear a single complaint about transportation.
- Volunteers were out in full force and, in fact, the tournament stopped taking names a few weeks before the event given the strong community response. Credit in part goes to Meijer with over 300 volunteers and to Blythefield with over 100. And they had a cheery, helpful attitude, too. I particularly liked one volunteer near the front entrance who greeted patrons with a spirited “Welcome to Blythefield Country Club!”
- Quality of competition, as expected, was exceptional. The sunny and dry weather, great greens, and a not too penal of a course set-up, all made conditions conducive to scoring and the pros didn’t disappoint. After a low round of 65 on Thursday (by Sandra Gal), 64s were carded each day thereafter. Birdies make for good entertainment. On day one, 39 players were at par or better which set the tone for the week.
- Approachable and fan-friendly players. As noted, the LPGA players really get it. They connect and engage with their fans. And all the stars I witnessed took time after signing their scorecards to then sign autographs and pose for photos with fans. One day after her round, Paula Creamer took extra time talking and posing for pictures with a group of junior fans all dressed in her trademark pink.
- A community-minded and well-heeled sponsor. That’s Meijer. Given its huge retail operation with its thousands of brands, it wasn’t surprising to learn the pro-am sold out early. If you do big business with Meijer, it only made sense to get on-board and support this event. Likewise, Meijer leveraged its relationships to maximize its investment with the tournament.
What could be done better? Even the Masters keeps getting better with its mantra of “constant improvement” so I hope no one gets too sensitive about a few suggestions:
- I’d like to see more grandstands for the general public. Blythefield members and sponsors deservedly had exclusive grandstand seats around the 9th, 17th and 18th holes and I don’t begrudge them that. But Blythefield isn’t a stadium TPC course (thank goodness!) with natural amphitheaters so it needs some help with elevated seating for the rest of the gallery. A few grandstands on both nines should be erected—as well as small bleachers for the practice range— and set aside for general patrons.
- My wise colleague Jack Berry also pointed out that the pairing sheets lacked the customary scorecard describing par and yardage for each hole. That’s an easy fix. (P.S. Berry also covered the 1961 Western Open at Blythefield won by Arnold Palmer!)
- The television coverage was generally well done. Yet, I’d like to see Meijer talk to the Golf Channel and offer some additional information about Grand Rapids and West Michigan. Mentions and footage about ArtPrize (starting next month) should be included as should be Grand Rapids’ nationally acclaimed craft beer reputation. I mean, it did earn the title of “Beer City USA” two years in a row. Other considerations are Grand Rapids growing stature in health care as well as the fact that the scenic Lake Michigan shoreline is only 30 minutes away.
- Establish a year-round awareness about the tournament and build early and long term fan interest. And create an incentive to buy week-long tickets earlier.
But the big picture: a resounding success for the inaugural Meijer LPGA Classic.