NAPERVILLE – Taking the podium at the Hotel Arista in his native Naperville on Friday, LPGA commissioner Mike Whan delivered a disclaimer to those assembled for lunch.
Whan was highly-caffeinated, and everyone seated at the first few tables might be inside “the spit zone.”
As excitement swirled at the kickoff luncheon for the 2016 LPGA International Crown, the man who will be host wanted to burst, too. Alas, Rich Harvest Farms owner and Northern Illinois University alum Jerry Rich worked not to grin himself thin. There’ll be plenty more to come as the 32-player, eight-nation match-play event nears its descent on Sugar Grove two Julys from now.
“I would say our tournament, maybe the following tournament, this will be one of the major tournaments for the LPGA,” Rich said. “There’s no doubt about it.”
The Crown, won by Spain in its inaugural playing at Maryland’s Caves Valley this past weekend, will come to Rich Harvest Farms (NIU’s home golf course) seven years after the course hosted The Solheim Cup in 2009.
A biennial team competition like the Crown, the Solheim pits only the United States against Europe. The United States, South Korea, Japan, Thailand, Spain, Sweden, Chinese Taipei and Australia competed at Caves Valley, capturing the more global scale of women’s golf.
The 2016 field of nations will be determined by a rankings system at the end of the 2015 LPGA season.
Rich, who hosted a number of Crown watch parties for various ethnic groups after visiting Caves Valley earlier last week, stressed that reach as he worked alongside LPGA officials to organize and launch the Crown.
On Friday, Whan offered support, noting the LPGA represents players from 32 countries while welcoming sponsors from 100 – a much more expanded scope than when he took over as commissioner in January 2010.
“I told the players back in 2010 going global is like going through a tunnel,” said Whan, a Naperville Central product. “You know where you want to get. I know it’s going to be better on the other side, but it gets dark in the middle. And most people turn back at one point. ... We’re going to keep going, feel our way through the tunnel.”
In 2014, the LPGA scheduled 15 of its 32 tournaments outside the United States. That’s certainly a boost to international players, who still have their favorite American courses despite more worldwide layouts from which to choose.
Anna Nordqvist, part of Sweden’s runner-up team at Caves Valley, beams when asked about Rich Harvest Farms. She was just a few months into her professional career when she was selected to Team Europe for Solheim 2009, and calls the galleries in Sugar Grove the biggest she’s seen in three career Cups.
About 120,000 fans attended the weeklong schedule of events at Rich Harvest Farms in 2009.
Rich said 500 to 600 volunteers already are in place for the 2016 Crown. He’s also determined to add a few thousand guests, planning to invite every high school girls golfer in Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana to the grounds.
In 2009, he extended the offer only to Illinoisans.
With RHF offering just 50 rooms on its property – typically reserved for players – Rich reached out to his alma mater, Northern Illinois University, as well as Aurora University, about dormitory space.
The response from NIU president Doug Baker was especially flattering.
“When I asked Dr. Baker if he had rooms available, he said, ‘You can have them all,’ ” Rich said.
LPGA vice president Kelly Hyne said the organization was not yet ready to release attendance figures for last week’s Crown, but Whan spoke of encouraging TV ratings for a first-time endeavor.
RHF also will host the Palmer Cup – a Ryder Cup-style event pitting the top 10 American collegiate golfers against their European counterparts – in June 2015.
The crown will be just 13 months away then. Imagine Rich’s anticipation.
“We’ve got two years, plus we’ve been working it for over two years already, so that’s four years,” Rich said. “And there isn’t too many people we’re not going to touch, especially in the ethnic communities, as well as the corporate communities.
“Everybody’s extremely excited about it. Plus, being at Rich Harvest, everybody wants to come out and see the grounds and see the beauty of the facilities that we built, and that’s all part of it. Because I love to share it with all the communities.”