Mixed emotions underscore the first Chevron Championship in its last leap at Mission Hills

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. — Professional golf tournaments leave their adopted locales all the time. Tournament title sponsors are typically even more fleeting, swaying with the economic breezes.

Major championship golf events are, however, generally far more sticky, affixed upon their respective, annual rotas of prestige, tradition or governing body.

In the primo Palm Springs golf pocket of Rancho Mirage this week, however, a long-known LPGA tide-turning bears witness to the desert’s final playing of golf’s first major of the season, the event now known as The Chevron Championship. In October of last year, it was announced that the tournament – still known colloquially as “The Dinah” – will move to Houston in 2023 under its new sponsorship and moniker, coupled with the news that the event’s purse will enjoy an instant 60 percent surge, ascending from $3.1 million up to $5 million.

Additionally, the tournament looks to benefit from network television coverage and some potential calendar separation from the Augusta National Women’s Amateur, which has planted itself in the same pre-Masters slot in its brief existence.

Entering its 51st year, The Dinah has been golf’s longest-running event continuously held at the same locale, save for The Masters. Despite such consistency, the event has undoubtedly experienced its own share of capriciousness; the “Chevron” title is the eighth official name of the tournament since its 1972 debut at Mission Hills Country Club.

As play got underway on Thursday amid calm conditions and under idyllic desert skies, a less visible, albeit omnipresent pall was indeed cast over opening-round play, with seemingly every shot being struck with the impending caveat that, come Sunday, the traditional victor’s jump into Poppie’s Pond will prove the last leap.

Yet, from players to past champs to member-residents, few, if any tears appeared shed as the Dinah readied for her goodbye. Akin to all sports, or, perhaps better stated, the business of sports, on the LPGA Tour, cash is queen. And while the apparent word-of-the-week, “bittersweet,” has oft-wafted over Poppie’s home-hole waters, there appears little local lament for the LPGA’s ensuing departure.

For some of the host club’s membership, they’re getting their club back in prime season.

“Speaking, perhaps selfishly, on behalf of several of my contemporaries, several weeks before the LPGA arrives here, the Tournament Course starts to become unplayable, as they let the rough grow,” said one longtime Mission Hills Country Club member-resident, who preferred to remain anonymous.

“In past years, they’ve also reverted to cart paths only. Then, following the tournament, it takes two weeks to restore the course to pre-event conditions. That’s four weeks of impaired play. I’m here 3 or 4 months a year, so that’s 30 percent of my season. And in recent years, to have access to the Tournament Course, members like me now pay a $3,000 a year to be a ‘Premier Member.’ Do you think the club will continue to charge a premium to play the Tournament Course when they no longer host the tournament?”

A majority of golf-ardent Mission residents seemingly have little love lost for the impending departure.

“My club sources tell me that Mission derives very little profit from the tournament, only notoriety,” the member stated. “So, I think I can say that I’m glad, I think we’re glad, that it will be gone.”

But what of the broader community, outside the country-club set? The attendance aesthetic on Thursday indicated a slight uptick from that of the opening round of 2019, the last time the tournament allowed fans on-site amid the pandemic era, which is to say the event’s once-dedicated desert fan base has grown tumbleweedy. While more fans took the opportunity to see the world’s best women for the first time in three years, Chevron’s presence and build-out didn’t vibe much more than a one-off in the desert.

A dearth of weekday (or even Saturday) galleries would appear to no doubt play a part in the event heading to Texas.

“When Nabisco sponsored the tournament, it was Carnival for a week,” added the anonymous member. “When they left, all that went away.”

As for those playing the event — particularly those integral to its modern history — this week, there’s a balance beam to walk.

“What’s so amazing is the history behind this tournament,” said 2014 winner Lexi Thompson. “To be in the same room with players that have jumped into Poppie’s Pond and done great things for the sport of women’s golf in general, it’s very special. I definitely caught myself in the middle of (the Champions Dinner) like,
‘Wow, this is a pretty amazing dinner to be a part of.’ I know it’ll be moving, but at the same time we’re not losing an event, we’re gaining a partnership with Chevron. So I think it’s great to see, and I’m sure that Houston will do it right and Chevron will as well.”

Another past champion drew on the recent changes at another major for a hopeful analog.

“I mean, the biggest thing about this event is Poppie’s Pond, I think. Obviously we’ve had multiple different sponsors that have sponsored this event, and I’m going to miss the tradition of that and every year hoping to be the one that gets to make that leap,” said 2016 champion Lydia Ko.

“At the same time…when KPMG took over the LPGA Championship everybody was sad because there is so much tradition and history at that event. But what KPMG has done to that event, they’ve upgraded it on every level — to the golf courses we play, the hospitality. And I think sometimes it is hard to like take that step, but I’m sure Chevron will do that, and we’ll make it an even better tournament for the future generations and for us playing.”

Champions from the tournament’s heyday offered more color to their commentary. In a conversation specific to Golf News Net, three-time Chevron winner and five-time major champion Amy Alcott was reflective during Thursday’s round.

“I think a lot of people around here this week are using my term, in that it does feel ‘bittersweet.’ There are certain courses that just feel like they’re built to stage an event,” said Alcott, who began the leap tradition following her second Chevron win in 1988. “When I’m here, I’m always reminded that it’s kind of iconic, that what I did really matters to women’s golf – and I’m touched by that. It does take a while for that to soak in. And I’m sad that this is going away.”

Alcott added that, ultimately, the new, big-time domestic sponsor and rise in prize money was ultimately a positive for the Tour.

“But, we’re on to another phase in women’s golf,” she said. “A new sponsor and event, and it’s a transition, which can be good and bad. But, for the most part, even though it’s sad, it is a good thing.”

Sandra Palmer — 19-time LPGA winner, two-time major champion and victor of the Chevron in 1975 (eight years before it gained major status) — has been a resident at Mission Hills since her ’75 win and a long-time instructor at the club. From her unique vantage as champion and member, Palmer doesn’t intimate much lament amongst her neighbors.

“As for the members here, some like the event here and some don’t,” said Palmer in a chat with Golf News Net. “Even though there are three courses here, people don’t want to give up their golf course when there are only so many good weather months; but, it’s always that way wherever you go.”

Palmer acknowledged a measure of understanding and mixed emotion as Thursday’s afternoon wave neared.

“It is very sad, and you can’t blame them, but I think a lot of people are sad it’s leaving; if Dinah was still alive, we’d still be having those unbelievable pro-ams, when all of the celebrities who were somebody were here. It was really something,” Palmer concluded. “But, I never moved anywhere except for a job, so, the money is a big deal. It’s a growing game, and that kind of money is hard to pass up. Come Sunday, I think we’ll see a lot of emotion out here. It will be interesting to see, and I hope it’s a great last tournament.”