Originally created 09/25/01

Officials work on changes for LPGA event



Aside from it being Tina Fischer's first LPGA Tour victory, the inaugural Asahi Ryokuken International Championship golf tournament will be remembered for its late date on the tour schedule and lack of television coverage, both of which are expected to be one-time occurences.

The 143-player tournament, which concluded Sunday at Mount Vintage Plantation Golf Club in Edgefield County, is expected to have a permanent May date starting in 2002 and have live network or cable television coverage.

Once the televison package is worked out, the new date - tentatively May 13-17 - will be announced. That could happen in the next two weeks, according to tournament director Steve Storm.

Because the inaugural tournament wasn't added to the 2001 schedule until February, it was difficult to line up a TV deal for this year. Going up against college and pro football on TV this time of year didn't help.

As it turned out, the first LPGA Tour event in the Augusta area in 35 years started just like the last one ended. The Titleholders, played at Augusta Country Club, wasn't televised either.

As was the case then, if fans wanted to know who was going to win the tournament, they had to walk with the players in contention. Groups of about 100 fans followed each of the final two groups on the back nine Sunday. More fans were stationed around the greens when the groups came through.

Only Storm and other tournament officials know how many spectators turned out for the three practice round days and four days of tournament play (three of the four scheduled rounds were played in those four days because of weather delays, reducing the tournament to 54 holes).

"We're not going to announce any attendance figures; we decided not to do that," Storm said.

Bettis Rainsford, co-owner of the Mount Vintage club, said, "We decided in the tradition that the Masters was established, we are not going to give out that information. We did a number of different things to try to interest people."

Many free passes for the tournament were given out, including tickets school children from the area.

"We don't anticipate any similar giveaway's in the future," Rainsford said.

Storm did say he was "pleased with the attendance. It might be a little under what I predicted, but it certainly exceeded a lot of people's expectations."

The largest galleries were on the weekends, with the best attendance day being Sunday.

"I was told we had as many cars here at 11 a.m. on Sunday as we had all day Saturday," Storm said. "We might have been hurt Saturday because we had only half the field playing (because the other half played its second round Friday). Some people might not have wanted to come out because the player they like to follow wasn't going to play that day."

Storm was so curious to find out the fan reaction to the tournament that he drove a couple of six-passenger shuttles to the course one day.

"There was one negative comment," Storm said. "Everybody else was complimentary of how everything looked and how they were treated."

Some praised the two-way shuttle service to the course and the shuttles that went to six different spots on the hilly course.

"At most tournaments, you have a long walk to get in and then around the property," Storm said. "We wanted to change that and make it a more spectator-friendly experience."

Storm expects higher attendance in 2002 "because word of mouth is going to help us," he said.

In addition to the earlier date and television coverage in 2002, another change is expected to come in the size of the purse. It was $1.2 million this year, with $180,000 going to Fischer, the winner.

"We're talking about increasing the purse for next year; how much larger it will be, I can't say," Storm said.

This year's purse, which was the seventh highest on the tour this year, no doubt helped the tournament draw a strong field, which featured eight of the top 10 on the current money list.

The money wasn't the only reason top players came, Storm said. They like to help a first-year tournament get off the ground, and they like to check out the course to see if it's a tournament they'll want to play in the future.

"The purse doesn't necessarily make a great tournament," Storm said. "What makes a great tournament is how the course is and how the players are treated."

"If they have it in September or May, the golf course is still a good course," said Dodie Mazzuca, who tied for 66th place. "Either way, it's going to be a good tournament."

Staff Writer Carly Phillips contributed to this article.

Reach David Westin at (706) 724-0851.