Even though it’s now the Marathon Classic for the first time in its 28 years — and the actor who played the cross-dressing Corporal Klinger from "M*A*S*H" has stepped into the background — a major drawing card for some of the LPGA’s finest players remains unchanged.
”When I first came here to Highland Meadows, I thought this was a tough golf course,” Inbee Park said. ”But it seemed like everybody was scoring so low out here that I couldn’t keep up with them.”
When the No. 1 player in the world — and winner of the first three women’s major professional championships this year — thinks she’s being lapped by so many birdie-happy adversaries, that’s saying something.
The course in suburban Toledo, not far from the Michigan-Ohio state line, has been the site of some of the best rounds in LPGA Tour history.
A 20-year-old rookie named Se Ri Pak put up a 61 in 1998 while winning her first of a record five titles at the course. Paula Creamer had a 60 in the first round five years ago to cruise to a victory. And rookie So Yeon Ryu shot a final-round 62 to come off the pace to win last year.
The past six years, the winners are a combined 103 under par.
”It’s a golf course that once you feel comfortable, you do play very well out here,” said Creamer, who followed up her career-low 11-under 60 with a ho-hum 65 and then coasted to a two-shot victory.
The galleries have become used to players going low. Maybe too used to it.
Locked in a four-way, all-South Korean tie for first heading into the final round a year ago, Ryu pulled away with a string of birdies.
”After I made six birdies in a row, the next hole I made par and the spectators’ faces were like, `What’s the problem with her? Why did she have a par?’ ” Ryu said with a smile.
Park recognizes that this might not be exactly the track to fit her game. She believes she is at her best on courses where par is a good score, not where fans are disappointed by one.
”I consider myself a very good player in major championships where the challenges come into play,” she said. ”Some people like very-low-scoring golf courses and some like tough golf courses.”
She’s in the latter camp. Still, she has improved every year she’s played in Northwestern Ohio going from a missed cut to a tie for 25th, to sixth to a third-place finish last year.
This year’s field includes seven of the top 10 and 17 of the top 25 on the LPGA money list, including Yani Tseng, Na Yeon Choi and Angela Stanford. Also on hand are teenage phenoms Lexi Thompson and amateur Lydia Ko.
The tournament also serves as one of the last chances to pick up precious points before the Solheim Cup teams are announced after the Women’s British Open at St. Andrew’s on Aug. 1-4. The Solheim will be played Aug. 15-18 at Colorado Golf Club.
Many will also be watching St. Andrew’s to see if Park can collect a fourth consecutive major.
Like most events on every tour, this week’s tournament has had several sponsor changes over the years. But Farr’s name was always prominent. After last year, when the 89-year-old actor heard that the oil company from nearby Findlay, Ohio, was interested, he discreetly left the stage.
Stacy Lewis, the No. 2-ranked player in the world and who is sponsored by Marathon, helped close the deal.
Born in Toledo and usually trailed by a large group of friends and family wearing ”Lew Crew” T-shirts, Lewis was participating in a Marathon corporate outing a year ago when the company’s CEO, Gary Heminger, surprised her by asking, ”Why should I sponsor an LPGA tournament?”
”I must have given him a pretty good response because we’re at this point here today,” she said.
Now if she can just figure out how to out-birdie everybody else in the field.