Kingsmill draws another quality LPGA field, but title-sponsor cloud still hovers

.@KingsmillLPGA contract runs through 2017 tournament

The field is typically stout, the course lush, the staff prepared. Yet a perennial cloud hovers over the LPGA Tour's Kingsmill Championship next week.

So as not to be a complete buzzkill, let's start with the upbeat news.

Headlined by Lydia Ko, Lexi Thompson and defending champion Minjee Lee, the tournament expects to showcase 23 of this year's top 25 money leaders, including the top 14, and 21 of the top 25 in the world rankings.

Fields worthy of a major championship have been the norm since the LPGA first staged an event at Kingsmill Resort in 2003, a testament to Pete Dye's par-71 River Course and the hospitality afforded the players by tournament staff and Hampton Roads fans.

Nine players have won this season's 12 events, with world No. 1 Ko, Haru Nomura and Ha Na Jang claiming two each. All nine are entered at Kingsmill, and if recent rains taper, they'll find a well-manicured, challenging course ready for competition next Thursday-Sunday.

"The golf course is really good right now," said Wayne Nooe, Kingsmill's general manager and a tournament linchpin since its inception. "And the rough, the rough's going to be pretty healthy for the tournament.

"We've had a pretty good spring weather-wise, and the golf course was really starting to come around. Then the rain last week, the rye grass just really jumped. When they came in and did the course inspection — their agronomist came in about a month ago, and he said he wants us to start the week out with the rough at about 3 inches. With this rain, 3 inches is not going to be a problem, and it's going to be very dense rough, that's for sure."

A two-hour rain delay and late tee times, the latter dictated by the Golf Channel's 5-7 p.m. live telecast, conspired to spill last year's final round into Monday morning. But this year's weekend telecasts are scheduled for 3-5 p.m., providing far more cover from any weather intervention.

Alas, there's no ducking the tournament's lack of a title sponsor. The shortcoming sent the event into exile in 2010 and '11, and with Kingsmill's latest contract with the LPGA set to expire after the 2017 edition, Nooe fears a sequel.

"It seems like you and I have this conversation every year," he said. "A title sponsor is so important to us. It's a fairly hefty bill for us at the resort to have every year. As supportive as the local community is and the local businesses are, it still doesn't cover all of our expenses.

"I don't want to be negative. I'm hoping we can still find a title sponsor, but it would be difficult for us to continue without a title sponsor."

The latest search began in early 2012 when Colorado-based Xanterra Parks & Resorts, Kingsmill's owner since 2010, announced the LPGA's return. Tournament officials and the LPGA have courted local, national and international prospects, and even enlisted a headhunter, but haven't found a taker to finance a purse of $1.3 million, an undisclosed Golf Channel tab and entertainment expenses.

"It's just kind of where we are," Nooe said. "We're not in a large market. A lot of our local businesses, not a lot of them are headquartered here. We just haven't found that right partner yet. … Williamsburg is an attractive market, but when you really start trying to talk about entertaining and bringing people in, (businesses) would prefer to be closer to their home office, or at least a place where they could bring customers in."

It's a familiar refrain for our region's LPGA fans.

The Tour staged 14 tournaments in South Hampton Roads from 1979-92 before sponsorship vanished. Anheuser-Busch terminated its PGA Tour event at Kingsmill — the brewing company owned the resort — after the 2002 edition and adopted the LPGA the following year. But Belgium-based InBev purchased Anheuser-Busch in 2008 and, citing sponsorship shortcomings, ended its support of the LPGA tournament a year later.

"We're still looking," Nooe said, "but after five years, you'd like to think we'd be further down the road with it. Regrettably, we're not."

Teel can be reached by phone at 757-247-4636 or by email at dteel@dailypress.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP.

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