Originally created 02/24/01

LPGA tour returns to area



Karrie Webb, Annika Sorenstam and many other LPGA Tour stars are expected to play in September's Asahi Ryokuken Augusta International Championship at North Augusta's Mount Vintage Plantation Golf Club.

"We've had a history of supporting first-year events," said LPGA Tour Commissioner Ty Votaw, who was in Augusta on Friday for the official announcement. "Based on that, we'll have a strong field this year."

The tournament will be played Sept. 20-23 with practice rounds running from Sept. 17-19.

The tournament sponsor, based in Fukuoka City, Fukuoka, Japan, produces natural foods. Its biggest seller is Ryokko Aojiru, a powdered green juice. Asahi Ryokuken President Ryota Koga, whose company sponsors athletic events in Japan, attended the news conference at the Augusta Municipal Building.

The purse of $1.2 million - seventh highest of the 41 events this season - will help draw the tour's elite.

"I feel certain they'll play," said Augusta's Mitzi Edge, a 17-year LPGA veteran. "With the purse being $1.2 million, that will get the attention of the players."

It's been 35 years since an LPGA Tour event has been held in the Augusta area. The Titleholders ran from 1937-1966 at Augusta Country Club.

"We spent a lot of time and energy working for the ladies," said John Fridie, a member of the eight-man Augusta International Championship Committee that helped make the tournament a reality. "This is a great day for ladies golf."

The Augusta International Championship Committee finalized the agreement with the LPGA late last week. Augusta businessman Larry Fridie headed up the committee as chairman. He's also the chairman of the Asahi Ryokuken Augusta International Championship.

A tournament director has been hired but is not in place. Ticket information will not be announced until he's on the job.

The venue for the 72-hole stroke play event wasn't decided until late Friday morning. Mount Vintage, a semiprivate club that opened in April, was chosen over the River Golf Club, also in North Augusta.

"We looked at the issues of the courses and how to control the gallery and services already offered," Larry Fridie said. "The committee voted. We literally went to the last moment. There were issues good on both sides."

Mr. Votaw said the LPGA signed a multiyear deal with Mount Vintage but wouldn't go into specifics.

The LPGA Tour is the oldest and most successful women's professional sports organization in the country. It celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2000.

"Part of our history is right here in Augusta," said Mr. Votaw, referring to The Titleholders. "It was one of the most popular tournaments on the LPGA Tour. We're thrilled to be coming back to a place that has such a rich part of our history."

The return of the LPGA Tour gives Augusta three professional golf tournaments, joining the Masters and a Hooters Tour event that debuted at the River Golf Club in 2000.

"This will help show people that we are indeed a golf city," said Augusta Mayor Bob Young, a key member of the Augusta International Championship Committee. "We talk about being the golf capital of the world, but give me a break ... one week out of the whole year. We've got the LPGA coming to town, and we're going to make this a substantial success. I'd also like to see us go after a seniors event sometime in the next four or five years."

The title of the tournament will no doubt cause some confusion with nonresidents. The word Augusta is in the title, but the tournament is in North Augusta. Adding more confusion is the fact Mount Vintage has a North Augusta mailing address, but is located in Edgefield County.

"If it's happening in metro Augusta, it's happening in Augusta in my opinion," Mr. Young said.

"We don't consider ourselves in competition with anybody in the metropolitan area because we all benefit," said Edgefield's Bettis Rainsford, who along with Talmadge Knight are the principal owners of Mount Vintage.

"It's a good thing for the whole area," said North Augusta Mayor Lark Jones. "We've got to get off the mind-set that if something happens good in Augusta, it's bad for North Augusta and Aiken, and vice versa. That's ridiculous. Anything good that comes to this area can only benefit the entire area. It will be like a mini-Masters. There will be people staying and eating all over the place."

The Augusta area now joins a short list of regions that play host to both PGA Tour and LPGA Tour events each year.

"Never in my wildest dreams did I think there would be a (LPGA) tournament here," Ms. Edge said. "There are a few tournaments where we play where there are also PGA Tour events, but they're usually in larger metropolitan areas. Augusta's been growing for awhile. I think we're big enough to host two tour events."

As for the event being televised, Mr. Votaw said "the possibility exists there may not be coverage this first year, but we're still working through those details. I think talking to the committee and with the lateness of this announcement, many television windows have already been set. We're looking for domestic broadcast partners. Our understanding is there may very well be broadcast back to Japan."

Reach David Westin at (706) 724-0851.

Business: Natural food sales

Headquarters: Fukuoka, Japan

Founded: 1997

President: Ryota Koga, 41

Sales: $51 million (2000)

Employees: 55

Product: Ryokko Aojiru, a powdered drink mix made from green barley leaves.