May 17, 2014 3:38:49 PM
WEST POINT -- If George Bryan didn't pick up the phone, Jane Blalock might never have found a location for the 2014 ISPS Handa Cup.
As it turned out, Bryan answered the call. Blalock was on the other end because she had heard the founder of Old Waverly Golf Club was at the 2013 version of the Handa Cup in Nashville, Tennessee. The event, which brings together U.S-born and internationally born players from the LPGA Legends Tour, needed a home for 2014, so Blalock thought she would gauge the interest of Bryan. After all, Bryan wasn't just a golf fan. He played an integral role in bringing the 54th U.S. Women's Open to West Point in 1999.
Blalock mentioned that phone call early in her remarks Thursday at a press conference to formally announce the Handa Cup will be Sept. 25-28 at Old Waverly Golf Club. Blalock, a 29-time LPGA Tour champion and CEO of the LPGA Legends Tour, thanked Bryan for answering his phone and said she was excited about holding the event in Clay County because she had heard so many wonderful things about Old Waverly. Blalock said she didn't play in the 1999 U.S. Women's Open, but she knew the event attracted more than 101,000 fans for the event. She hopes to have a comparable number of fans later this year when some of the best LPGA Legends, including Nancy Lopez and Juli Inkster, who will represent the U.S., will invade West Point.
"We're not recognized everywhere. We are not on television a lot, so that is a big feature of it, but we're getting there," Blalock said.
Blalock said the Legends Tour, which started in 2000, is getting more exposure in specialty publications like Golf Week and Golf World and is getting outlets like The Golf Channel to flash its scores on their channels. She admitted, though, more works needs to be done to make the tour a household name.
"When I first played on the LPGA Tour it was what is was like then. We need more recognition," Blalock said. "I think this event will go a long way as far as recognition."
Blalock said the addition of Inkster, who will make her LPGA Legends Tour debut at the Handa Cup, will help attract attention. She said tour organizers have wanted Inkster to play on the Legends Tour for a few years, but she said why should Inkster do that because she has been playing so well on the LPGA Tour.
Blalock said the addition of Laura Davies, who has won LPGA Tour events, also has helped bring attention to the Legends Tour. She said the tour has 50-70 players who compete in events. The tour's biggest event is the Legends Championship, which has a field of 60 players, in French Lick, Indiana. Laurie Kuehne won that event on the final hole to take home a $60,000 first-place check.
Blalock said all players who compete at events receive a check. She said the players have worked too hard to have to worry about making a cut.
"I don't want to hear ever again that it is the best-kept secret," Blalock said.
Still, Blalock said the Legends Tour has a way to go to get to the level of The Champions Tour, the PGA's version of the Legends Tour. Her goal is increase the number of Legends Tour events to 15 or 16 and to increase the size of the purses. She said sponsors like Walgreens and B.J.'s Wholesale Club have helped raise the profile of the tour but that more are needed to help it continue to grow.
Like Lopez discussed Thursday, Blalock hopes having the Handa Cup in Mississippi will help build interest and exposure.
"I think the Handa Cup has a good chance to do that because it is unique, it is prestigious, and it is at Old Waverly and the attention we are going to get here," Blalock said. "We need that. It is not easy. You need to get a little lucky. You need a Fox Sports to pick it up and then guess what, you see ESPN picks it up or NBC picks it up.
"I think Juli Inkster is going to make a big difference because she is current. I really think that is going to help us a lot. We have the names that are recognizable and people can relate to and watch play, which is why the Champions Tour has been so successful."
Blalock said the Legends Tour needs more help from the LPGA Tour to continue to move forward. She said the PGA Tour assists and subsidizes many of the Champions Tour events but that the Legends Tour doesn't have that luxury. As CEO of the Legends Tour director, she said it is part of her job to build contacts and relationships with people in the television network and with others in the business community. If she and others in the LPGA Legends Tour can do that, she is confident the tour will reach its goals.
In fact, she she said there have been "very serious" conversations about holding a U.S. Senior Women's Open, which she said is "long overdue." She feels it may happen in 2016. When that happens, she believes there won't be anyone who will again say they didn't know the LPGA had a senior or Legends Tour.
"The women's market is growing," Blalock said. "Golf has been struggling a little bit in its growth. I think that is going to have a great impact and certainly mean a lot to us.
"I think it is going to be a challenge. I am not seeing any young Nancy Lopezes out there. It is a global game, but the difference I see is it used to be an American tour with personalities and a global influence. We had a lot of Japanese players and Swedish players, but it was an American tour. Now it is really a foreign tour with a few American players who win from time to time. ... There are great young women, but they are players the American public doesn't relate to quite as well, and it doesn't have the energy, the excitement, the sharing. I think the feeder system -- junior golf, college golf, the LPGA Futures Tour -- looks very much like that, so I am not seeing a lot of young Americans. I think there are so many options for young girls here whereas particularly in Asia at 2 or 3 years old if you show any promise and all you're going to do is play golf and that is your career. It is decided for you, and it is subsidized, you have great teachers and education, so it is a priority. Women's golf needs some help. I wish I had an answer. I don't. Hopefully, the Legends Tour can help in our way by just spreading the word that hey, our players can still play and have the personalities and this game is fun."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsporteditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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