PGA MERCHANDISE SHOW: LPGA introduces International Crown event

ORLANDO, FL. – The Ladies PGA Tour is returning to Chicago – but it won’t be until 2016. And then it will be for the staging of an extraordinary new team event.

Mike Whan, the LPGA commissioner, highlighted the first day of the 60th PGA Merchandise Show by announcing the arrival of the International Crown event. It’ll make its debut July 21-27 at Caves Valley, a Tom Fazio design in Owings Mills, Md., and the second staging will be in the summer of 2016 at Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove.

Jerry Rich, owner and designer of the Rich Harvest private facility that hosted the 2009 Solheim Cup matches, was a leader in making the new event happen.

“Three days after Mike became commissioner (in 2010)_ I brought him to Chicago and said we’ve got to do something special,’’ said Rich. “The greatest players aren’t just from America. They’re from Asia and around the world.’’

That started the planning process that led to Thursday’s announcement before a standing-room-only press conference at the Orange County Convention Center.

Rich Harvest’s Solheim Cup was a rousing success, but didn’t lead to the return of an LPGA annual stop to Chicago. The LPGA has only sporadically staged tournaments on Chicago courses, the last being the Kellogg-Keebler Classic at Stonebridge, in Aurora, in 2004.

That tourney had a three-year run in the aftermath of the U.S. Women’s Open being played at Merit Club in Libertyville in 2000. Karrie Webb won at Merit Club and at the last Kellogg-Keebler with Annika Sorenstam dominating at Stonebridge in 2002 and 2003.

The International Crown, though, will top all those and might well rival the success of the Solheim with the top players world-wide guaranteed to compete.

“At the Solheim Cup (of 2009) we had the largest event (the LPGA) ever had,’’ said Rich. “We had 120,000 people in Chicago – the greatest golf city in the world. Maybe this (new) event won’t approach the Ryder Cup that we just had at Medinah, but it will be huge.’’

Rich probably could have hosted the 2014 International Crown, but decided against it.

“I needed four years to wait because of our junior programs,’’ said Rich. His staff has studied the nearly 2,000 high school girls programs in five states. Those players, along with college players, will be invited to the International Crown with lodging already being arranged at Northern Illinois University and Aurora College.

The International Crown will present a different type of competition and have a broader world-wide appeal than the LPGA’s previous tries at one-week individual championships here. Whan predicted the event will “take women’s golf to the next level and allow fans to rally behind their homelands.’’

The International Crown will be held in even-numbered years to avoid conflict with the Solheim Cup. It’ll feature 32 players from eight countries battling to determine, according to the LPGA, “the world’s best golf nation.’’

Competition will be over four days, three for best-ball matches and one for singles matches. Teams will be determined by the top four players on the Rolex World Rankings after the 2013 CME Group Titleholders event, the last tourney of the LPGA season. If the International Crown were to be held now the eight teams participating would be South Korea, the U.S., Japan, Sweden, Australia, Taiwan, Spain and England.

The four players who will compete for each country when the competition begins will be determined at a later date.

“Our tour is so global, we need this type of an event,’’ said Stacey Lewis, the top-ranked American player. “People always want to know why golfers from Asia are so good. Now we can see how all the countries stack up.’’

Taiwan’s long-time world No. 1 player, Yani Tseng, likened the lead-in to the International Crown to “preparing for the Olympics.’’ The Rich Harvest version of the International Crown will about a month before the Olympics in Brazil, when golf will make its return to the Games.

The first International Crown event will offer a $1.6 million purse with each member of the winning team receiving $100,000. Ambassadors and financial supporters will be announced at a later date as will the nature of the trophy going to the winning nation