The Safeco Classic was once the premier golf event in the Pacific Northwest. From 1982 to 1999, the best female golfers in the world stepped up to the tee boxes at Meridian Valley in Kent and delivered a good show to a golf-mad region.
By the end of its run, the tournament was the only annual stop in the region, though about six years later, the GTE Northwest Classic was resurrected as the Boeing Classic and held at Snoqualmie Ridge.
Only occasionally has the area been in the national spotlight since then. The 2015 U.S. Open was held at Chambers Bay — some unseasonable 90-degree weather contributed to problems with the greens — and Sahalee Country Club in Sammamish played host to the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship in 2016.
The success of those tournaments has demonstrated the demand for high-level golf here, and the players love coming here to play in our temperate climate. Even with the Boeing Classic around, there is certainly room for another annual event.
The LPGA Legends Tour has taken a step toward filling that void. This year, White Horse Golf Club in Kingston played host for a second time to the Suquamish Clearwater Legends Cup, a tournament that features a number of players who used to participate in the Safeco Classic, including four winners — Juli Inkster, Joanne Carner, Jan Stephenson and Maria Hjorth McBride.
“You have to have the stability of years and years and years to build up a following,” said Bruce Christy, the director of golf at White Horse Golf Club. “You can’t just say, ‘Well, we’re going to to go to White Horse for two years, and then we’re going to go to Overlake for two years,’ because then the fans are like, ‘Where am I going?’”
The good news is the event is returning for at least one more year, and there is certainly a case to be made for making it a permanent stop.
For one, the access is incredible. There are no ropes, few restrictions and fans are able to get a little closer — within reason, of course — than they otherwise might at another event. It makes for a more intimate experience.
The players have consistently said the course is top-notch. Inkster, a World Golf Hall-of-Famer, the captain of the U.S. Solheim Cup team and a commentator for Fox Sports, knows a thing or two about golf courses. Over her 30-year career, Inkster has played at golf courses all over the world.
“The course was in awesome shape, all the ladies raved about how good a shape it’s in,” Inkster said. “It’s really a fun course to play.”
White Horse has steadily improved since the Suquamish Tribe rescued it in 2010. The redesign left intact its difficulty while making it more fun and playable for the average golfer. It might not have any bells and whistles that sometimes accompany more well-known courses — no island greens, high hilltops or uphill shots or deep bunkers that feel like bottomless pits — but its huge trees and views of the Olympic Mountains make for a spectacular backdrop during your round.
“This is a true Northwest test,” Christy said.
Word-of-mouth does seem to be spreading. The crowd was noticeably bigger this year when Inkster and Moira Dunn-Bohls came down the 18th fairway. About 200 people were crowded around the fringe or watched from the deck of the clubhouse, and I think there is even more room for improvement.
Getting some of the bigger eligible names to come out for the tournament, such as Nancy Lopez, Patty Sheehan and Annika Sorenstam, are obvious moves but more local outreach would also be a positive step.
Every West Sound high school has a boys and girls golf team, and all but one play in the spring. It shouldn’t be too hard to find a way to get the golfers and their families to attend. Perhaps the top local players could take part in an amateur tournament the weekend before to win a slot in the professional tournament.
How about getting the state champions from each classification to be a part of the pro-am? It could expand the reach of the tournament to central and eastern Washington and get more folks coming in from those areas.
A unique opportunity has presented itself. Kitsap doesn’t have much in the way of sporting events in the summer with the Bluejackets and the Pumas now gone. A county of 260,000 and a heck of a lot more people just a ferry ride away should be able to sustain at least one large-scale tournament like this.
Let’s hope it continues to grow in 2020.
Mark Krulish reports on sports for the Kitsap News Group. He can be contacted at mkrulish@soundpublish ing.com.