SPORTS: City should be tour stop for men’s or women’s golf

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That sellout crowds flocked to Carmel’s Crooked Stick Golf Club for the Solheim Cup should come as no surprise. This is an area with a big appetite for golf, whether playing or watching it.

Yet it’s also a reminder that for all we have accomplished in spectator sports, professional golf remains the hole in our doughnut.

Yes, we have had our on-and-off forays into the arena. A PGA Tour stop, the 500 Festival Open, took place on the old Speedway Golf Course from 1960 to 1968 with the exception of one year when Speedway renovations moved the tournament to Greentree Country Club. Gary Player and Billy Casper were among the winners.

The first six tournaments actually took place during the last week of May and occasionally coincided with practice for the 500.

I’m reminded of the story involving Jack Nicklaus, who complained that the roar of the race cars interfered with his ability to concentrate on his putting. A reporter relayed Nicklaus’ gripe to A.J. Foyt, who replied, “Tell Nicklaus the sound of his puttin’ doesn’t bother my drivin’.”

Eventually, the 500 Open moved to late July, then back to early June, but 1968 was the last year. That also was the year when the 500 Festival tried a double, hosting a PGA Tour stop and an LPGA event at the Speedway in back-to-back weeks.

It wasn’t until 10 years later that professional golf returned in the form of the LPGA Mayflower Classic. Unfortunately, when Mayflower’s sponsorship dollars went away, so did the tournament. CCI, of course, also had hosted the U.S. Women’s Open in 1978.

Finally, in 1988, there came the Senior PGA Tour (now the Champions Tour) in the form of the GTE North Classic at Broadmoor, which eventually morphed into the Comfort Classic at the Brickyard. That faded into oblivion after 1999 largely because of iffy weather related to its September dates, which also conflicted with football season, and Tony George’s interest in using his facility in September to host the U.S. Grand Prix.

Beyond that, pro golf has been special occasions. Certainly, the 1991 PGA Championship at Crooked Stick is an all-time highlight given Long John Daly’s memorable long-odds triumph. And now comes the Solheim Cup, the biggest international team competition in women’s golf, which is certain to provide another shot of adrenalin for central Indiana golf fans.

The timing couldn’t be better. The LPGA-buoyed by such outstanding young talents as Paula Creamer, Natalie Gulbis and Christina Kim-is rising anew and will only climb higher as soon as Michelle Wie and Morgan Pressel become tour regulars. And of course, there is Annika Sorenstam, who is in a class by herself.

It is great news, too, that Crooked Stick, blessed with a new and dramatically expanded clubhouse, will play host to the U.S. Senior Open for men in 2009, maintaining both the course’s and central Indiana’s national exposure.

Certainly, there are those involved with the club who hope the Senior Open might be an entrée to a future U.S. Open, but don’t hold your breath. The U.S. Golf Association already has bid out its championship through 2012, and breaking into the Open rotation is extremely difficult.

Short of that, my hope is that someone-and yes, that someone needs to bring lots of money-will pitch Indianapolis as a tour stop on the men’s or women’s tours. The former will be tough. Tour stops are highly valued and dates are scarce, especially the June-July-August dates Indianapolis would need to ensure a reasonable shot at weather and attendance. Money talks, so landing a major sponsor would be the first order of the day although, it should be noted, Lilly has bought into the PGA Tour in the form of the Cialas Western Open near Chicago.

It likely would be easier-in terms of dates and sponsorship-for Indy to try to revive its presence on the LPGA Tour. I’m convinced it would be supported because, as noted earlier, the LPGA is flush with an exciting crop of young stars and is about to make gains in popularity and acceptance, not unlike the early ’80s when Nancy Lopez, Hollis Stacy, Amy Alcott, Beth Daniel and Jan Stephenson were reaching new audiences.

As for venues, take your pick. In my view, Crooked Stick, the Brickyard, The Fort, Sagamore, Purgatory, Prairie View, Hawthorns or Bridgewater could host either a men’s or women’s tour stop.

Only two questions remain: Who has the will and who writes the big check?

Benner is a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly.To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send email to

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