Another big women’s week at French Lick — but this one is different

The players have changed, but enthusiasm for women’s golf still runs high at French Lick.

FRENCH LICK, Indiana – It’s transition time for women golfers at Indiana’s premier golf resort.

It’s hard to imagine any golf facility doing more for the women’s game in the last decade than this southern Indiana resort has been willing to step forward for two pro circuits — The Legends for players who have reached their 45th birthday and the Epson (formerly the Symetra) for future Ladies PGA Tour stars.

“We’ve been a long-term supporter of women’s golf,’’ said French Lick long-time director of golf Dave Harner.  “There’s been a lot of opportunities here for the ladies to play.’’

That’s putting it mildly.

French Lick, best known for being the boyhood home of basketball legend Larry Bird, was in a revival mode after its oldest course – the Donald Ross – underwent a renovation while construction on its newest one – the spiffy Pete Dye Course – was wrapping up.

The resort needed a big event to showcase its new course, and the LPGA’s Legends Tour needed a big tournament.  It was a good marriage.

French Lick put the focus on the Legends Tour, which was only nominally a part of the LPGA at the time. It consisted  of women touring professionals who had hit their 45th birthday.  One of them, Jane Blalock, struggled to get a circuit started for her colleagues in 2000, but it took French Lick leadership to really get it done.

The Legends Championship, a 54-hole tournament with a $500,000 purse, made its debut in 2013 on the spectacular Pete Dye Course, and that wasn’t all.  The resort also established the Legends Hall of Fame in its West Baden Springs Hotel.

Lorie Kane was the Legends first champion followed by Laurie Rinker, Juli Inkster and Trish Johnson. In 2017 the Legends Championship was transitioned into the first major championship for senior women players.  It became the inaugural Senior LPGA Championship, and Johnson won again.

French Lick not only paid a substantial price to get television coverage but 2017 also marked the arrival of the Symetra Tour in town.  The young, budding LPGA stars competed in the Donald Ross Memorial tourney, held to celebrate the centennial of the oldest of the little town’s three courses. Three LPGA tourneys had been held there, including the 1959 and 1960 LPGA Championships.

The gardens at the West Baden Springs Hotel offer a stunning  lead-in for visitors to the Pete Dye Course.

Using the golf spotlight to benefit the Riley Children’s Hospital, French Lick also hosted Senior LPGA Championships in 2018, 2019 and 2021 and the Symetra’s Donald Ross Classic in from 2017-19 and 2021. Neither tournament was held in 2020 because of pandemic issues.

That was a big load for any golf facility to take on, so something had to give. It was “So long, Legends’’ and a big welcome back to the Epson Tour, which had taken over the title of the developmental circuit.

The Legends had a great run at French Lick, with some celebrated champions before departing.  Laura Davies followed Johnson as the winner of the Senior LPGA in in 2018, Helen Alfredsson was the champion in 2019 and Johnson won again last year.

Harner, in a final farewell to the senior stars, played in the pro-am prior to this year’s Senior LPGA at Salina Country Club, in Kansas.  Their circuit is now called The Legends of the LPGA but it’s in transition, too.  Blalock took a diminished role in the circuit’s operation when Jane Geddes was named executive director.  Geddes didn’t stay in that role very long, though, and now Linda Chen is the circuit’s executive director of business development.

Over the years the Legends have raised nearly $24 million for charity, and that number will grow with three more events on this year’s schedule – The Land O’ Lakes Classic in Minnesota this month, BJ/s Charity Classic in Massachusetts in September and the Rosie Jones Invitational in South Carolina in October. Those players also have a second major championship coming up with the U.S. Senior Women’s Open Aug. 25-28 at NCR in Dayton, Ohio.

The horse statue will greet the Epson players when they approach the entry to the Pete Dye Course.

This year’s Donald Ross Charity Classic won’t have the same big names in women’s golf in its field but will have the brightest young stars, headed by the season’s leading money-winner, Lucy Ly.

Previously known as the Futures and Symetra tours, the Epson has been around for 41 years but the tourney at French Lick will be something special.

Most significant is the prize money — $335,000, with $50,250 going to the champion.  It’s also a 72-hole event, a rarity on the women’s pro circuits, and has been designated as the Epson’s flagship eent, meaning it will offer more Rolex World Golf Rankings points than any tournament this season.

Two full-field pro-ams are on tap for Wednesday on the Pete Dye Course and the LPGA is livestreaming the last two rounds of the tournament.

“It’ll be big,’’ said Harner.  “It’s the biggest purse in their history.’’ The previous biggest purse was $300,000 in 2019 when the tourney was held at a layout on Alabama’s Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail.

Casey Danielson earned $37,500 for her win in last year’s event at French Lick.  That catapulted the former Stanford University golfer to the LPGA, but she’s coming back to French Lick to defend her title this week.

Erynne Lee, in 2017; Stephanie Kono (2018) and Patty Tavatanakit (2019), were other winners of the Donald Ross tourney.  They’ll find a much different atmosphere and challenge when they take to the Pete Dye Course.

A couple young stars to watch include 17-year old rookie phenom Alex Pano and Jaravee Boonchant, who arrived last week from  her native Thailand.  Even without a practice round on the tournament course Boonchant was a seven-shot winner in the Illinois Women’s Open immediately after arriving in the United States. She went on to finish a strong tie for 13th on Sunday in the Epson Tour’s Firekeepers tournament in Michigan.

The Firekeepers had a surprise champion in Xiaowen Yin, who won in a playoff with Gina Kim.  Yin, who won $30,000, came into the tournament at No. 24 on the season money list while Kim was No. 6.

“The Pete Dye Course has a tradition of hosting major championship golf,’’ said Mike Nichols, chief business officer of LPGA Qualifying Tours.  “By elevating the tournament experience for the Epson Tour, French Lick Resort has set an example for our current and future partners of how we can ally to support these professional athletes chasing their dreams.’’