Phil Mickelson made an eagle on No. 13.
Robert Beck/SI
Thursday, May 21, 2009

CORNING, N.Y. (AP) — Rosie Jones wasn't going to miss saying so long, not to her adoring public along New York's Southern Tier and the golf course she once dominated.

"The realization that the Corning Classic won't be here after this year really kind of hits home," Jones, the only repeat winner of the tournament (1996-97), said Wednesday. "It's not one of our big, huge events on tour, but it was a big, heartfelt event. It was one of our signature tournaments, and those are hard to come by, hard to keep."

(Round 1 scores from the Corning Classic.)

The Corning Classic, the lone event on the LPGA Tour with the same title sponsor and held at the same venue since its inception, begins Thursday and will end for good on Sunday, another victim of the depressed economy.

Corning Inc. announced a month ago that it would no longer be able to continue as title sponsor, and that was enough to kill the tournament, which began in 1979 and has been staged at Corning Country Club every year.

Jones, who retired in 2006 but came back on a sponsor's exemption to play last May, is the Corning Classic's all-time leading money-winner with $564,630 earned over 78 rounds. Laura Diaz, the only native New Yorker to win the tournament, ranks second with $301,334.

Diaz's victory here in 2002 was her second LPGA triumph - she hasn't won since - and the prospect of playing Corning for the final time wasn't something she was looking forward to.

"It's very sad. It's been a great 11 years," Diaz said. "The LPGA greatly appreciates everything this town and the Corning corporation have done for us. It's sad because the town is hurting. I feel like we're friends of this community, and it pains me."

Although its outlook is improving, Corning Inc., an American manufacturer of glass, ceramics and related materials, has been hit hard in recent months. It had to cut 3,500 jobs worldwide this year and saw its first-quarter profit fall 99 percent.

Other factors in the Corning Classic's demise were declining attendance and a lack of volunteers. The friendly, small-town atmosphere often was not enough to attract many of the game's top players, in part because of Corning's spot on the schedule, just ahead of the McDonald's Championship.

The finale of the tournament, which has raised over $1.5 million for local charities over the years, will be different. The field for the 31st Corning Classic includes eight of the top 10 players on the money list and 28 of the top 30.

Among those returning is Paula Creamer, who also counts Corning as one of her favorite tour stops.

"It's kind of shocking. You can understand, too, with the times that we're going through right now," said Creamer, No. 9 in earnings this year. "The fans here are just unbelievable. It's a small town, but the people have big hearts, and they really enjoy women's golf. It's just a different feeling. You get all types of generations that come out here."

One thing is certain. Jones, who reveled in the fact that she could be herself here - she was seen more than once playing air guitar and singing in the front window of a restaurant downtown - will remain the only back-to-back winner of the Corning Classic. An aching back forced defending champion Leta Lindley to withdraw from the only tournament she's won in 14 years on tour.

"It has been an emotional week being here," said Lindley, who beat Jeong Jang in a one-hole playoff a year ago to become the ninth player to count the Corning Classic as her first triumph on tour. "I've shed a few tears along the way. It was a really hard decision for me to withdraw. I would feel differently if I knew I was coming back for 10 years, but knowing this is the final Corning Classic, and I don't get to participate, it's really sad for me."

LPGA Deputy Commissioner Libba Galloway allowed a moment of hope for the future when tournament officials announced they would not renew their contract with the LPGA after this year.

"We'll miss it," Galloway said. "But when things turn around, we would love the opportunity to come back to Corning."

"Who knows? The guys last night were talking about, you know what, we can bring this back," added Jones, who is not playing and plans to return home before the tournament's end. "There is a lot of optimism. I don't think people are ready to let go of women's golf here. We're always willing to come back."

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