By Mike Dougherty
HARRISON – A couple of times a day, a legitimate roar could be heard in the distance.
It sounded like a golf tournament.
There was a buzz coming into the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship and the movement gained momentum as the week progressed. Will the game ultimately grow? That’s a question to ask in five years, but the combined efforts of the LPGA Tour and the PGA of America deserve more than polite applause.
Label this one a success.
Never mind the one ticket-holder who actually called to complain about menu selections. It was otherwise difficult to find anyone who didn’t leave impressed with some aspect of this championship.
“It was an awesome week for us,” Stacy Lewis said after she finished tied for 13th. “It showcased the tour really well. Westchester was a great host and it was a really, really good first year for the tournament. I know ideas are already flowing for next year out at Sahalee, and I can’t wait to get out there. This is just a steppingstone. I think there are going to be more good things to come.”
The biggest thing any of the organizers did to ensure success was calling Westchester Country Club, which set a new standard for being tournament ready.
An opportunity to play here made the players almost giddy.
Yes, the famed West Course gave up more than a few surprisingly low scores. The conditions were so good here this week, the rest of the LPGA stops are likely to be a letdown. We heard it was going to be a grind, but Inbee Park methodically carded a 19-under 273 total. And it might have been nice to see more than one day where the setup rattled nerves.
There’s a lot to be learned from how these women play the game.
And they happily talked up the course, the event and the crowds. There’s no chance any spectators who asked politely for autographs left with less than a dozen signatures.
Tournament officials do not release attendance figures, but conservative estimates from tournament and club officials placed the number between 12,000 and 15,000.
It’s not an eye-popping total for a major.
There is no question this championship outdistanced the Constellation Energy Senior Players Championship that made a stopover here in 2011. And this event lapped the former HSBC Women’s Match Play Championship at Wykagyl Country Club that came and went in 2007.
No gallery this week matched the heydays of the Buick Classic.
“We’re very, very happy with the crowds this week,” championship director Bob Jeffrey said. “When you get around the 18th green with the monster scoreboard and the bleachers and everyone gathering there, it looks spectacular. We’re very, very happy with the crowds. And the New York market is a tough place to compete.”
Normally, the largest crowds are on hand Friday and Saturday, but there were more than enough people on hand for the final round on Sunday to fill in the wide shots that were part of NBC’s telecast.
That is the measuring stick now.
We have to stop judging the success of a tournament based on the number of people who are willing to climb onto shuttles and chase golfers around the course. It’s a saturated market. Television ratings for golf are pretty good right now.
There’s a reason why FOX paid $1 billion for the USGA rights.
All of the parties involved this week are smiling about the ratings here. Golf Channel had the first two rounds and enjoyed 80 percent gains over last year. The overnight ratings for Saturday on NBC were the highest of any women’s major in the last three years.
Elevating the women’s game was the primary focus of this unique partnership, and that kind of exposure is a needed jolt of adrenaline.
So what’s next?
It became clear how much pull KPMG has in this equation on Saturday when Sahalee Country Club outside Seattle was named as the host for 2016. Sure, it’s a nice venue with some history, but I’m not convinced that corner of the country is the best place for this championship.
Tapping into the tech sector is not high on the LPGA’s list of priorities.
Chicago is likely next on the list, which is a step in the right direction, and there’s a pretty good chance the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship will come back this way before KPMG’s run as title sponsor is up.
“I think we’d love to come back to this market in our five-year cycle,” Jeffrey said.
Based on how everything played out, that sounds like a good idea.