Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Corning Classic and I both joined the LPGA tour in 1979. That first year I was paired with Mickey Wright for the opening two rounds. What a way to start — and it only got better from there.

Back then, the tour was a small and intimate scene. Players carpooled, and everyone stayed in the same hotel. At the pro-ams your team was more likely to include the local banker or the high school football coach than a president of a Fortune 500 company. From the locals at each tournament site you learned the best fishing holes and the don't-miss places to eat.

No event better exemplified this bond between the tour and its host cities than the Corning Classic, which was held at the Corning (N.Y.) Country Club last week for the final time after 31 years. Tucked in upstate New York, 75 miles southeast of Rochester, the event wasn't the easiest place to get to, but it was always one of the most popular.

After three second-place finishes in 14 years, I finally won in 1994. That was special for me. Including myself, seven World Golf Hall of Famers have won the tournament. But thanks to the people of Corning (pop. 15,000) everyone was made to feel like a superstar. How many tournaments build a large scoreboard on the town square so anyone out running errands can keep track of what's happening on the course? During tournament week shopkeepers along Market Street, the main drag, decorate their windows in golf themes. One year I was one of the judges who helped select the top three.

When I wasn't on the golf course or eating chicken wings at the Elbow Room in nearby Elmira, I was fishing. I traveled the tour with my rod and reel, and every year a volunteer would invite a group of us to fish on his lake. Rosie Jones and I would go out on a little boat with a bag of sunflower seeds and catch and release bass until dark.

But in recent years Corning Inc., a glass and ceramics maker, has been forced to cut 3,500 workers. The tournament's corps of volunteers has thinned and attendance has fallen off. As the number of players and the size of purses have grown, the LPGA has moved away from the community-based tour that marked much of my 28-year career; now it is more corporate. While Corning Inc. financed the Classic, it truly was a community tournament that represented the best of the old LPGA tour. It's a time and place I will always cherish.

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