Every year for the past 12, the spirited little city of Corning, N.Y., has gotten a springtime spit-shine in preparation for its week in the spotlight as host of the LPGA's $350,000 Corning Classic. In the days preceding the late-May event, Mayor John Kostolansky orders an extra mowing of what little grass there is around the city hall-civic center-public library-skating rink complex. Firemen hose down Market Street, the main drag, which is on the national historic register. And Anne Price and the other merchants along that thoroughfare's redbrick sidewalks decorate their shop windows, hoping to win a prize in a contest sponsored by the Greater Corning Area Chamber of Commerce.
On the first night of the tournament week, hundreds of citizens, accompanied by a jazz band and nourished by lots of hot dogs, gather at the regional airport to welcome the players to town. "We roll out the red carpet for them," says Denis Sweeney, president of the Chamber of Commerce. "We want the golfers and the other visitors to feel like it's their hometown."
The LPGA pros, including Pat Bradley, the winner of this year's tournament by three strokes over Patty Sheehan, relish the attention that is lavished on them by the smallest (pop. 13,000) host city on the women's tour. "These folks appreciate the game, and it's a pleasure to play here," said Bradley, after firing a five-under-par 66 that propelled her to a four-shot lead heading into Sunday's final round.
However, in professional golf, as in most sports these days, the siren song of network TV is irresistible. That's why publicity-minded LPGA officials, ignoring the sentiments of players like Bradley, thought nothing of scheduling the first-ever Skins Game for women on the same weekend as the Corning Classic. Invited on the basis of their marquee value to compete for the Skins' $450,000 purse at the Stonebriar Country Club in Frisco, Texas, were four of the LPGA's best-known players. The Skins Game organizers—Ohlmeyer Communications, a television-production company, and International Management Group, Mark McCormack's sports promotion firm (SI, May 21)—selected two of them: former Corning Classic winner and LPGA Hall of Famer JoAnne Carner, and Jan Stephenson, who is back in competition after suffering a severe finger injury when she was mugged in Miami in January. The other two choices belonged to the LPGA, which invited Nancy Lopez, who has played at Corning only twice, and Betsy King, who had played the tournament 10 of the last 11 years.
The situation ruffled quite a few feathers in the century-old upstate New York community, known for its glass manufacturing company, Corning Inc., and for the looming Allegheny foothills that surround the town. It also put King, an ardent Corning fan, squarely in the middle of the controversy. King initially declined her Skins invitation to avoid offending Lee Robbins, the Corning Classic's general chairman.
At the time, Robbins, a 59-year-old retired pilot who used to fly one of the Corning Inc. turboprop courtesy planes, which ferry players to town from the previous week's tournament site, was none too happy at the prospect of his event being upstaged. But by complaining loudly to LPGA commissioner William Blue last fall, when the Skins deal was announced, Robbins obtained a wheelbarrow full of concessions for his tournament. The cargo included an undisclosed amount of money and permission to add two more foursomes to Monday's pro-am field, eight spots which the organizers could sell for $3,600 each.
In a peace pact, the LPGA agreed never again to hold a Skins event opposite the Corning, or, for that matter, opposite any long-established tour tournament, unless the tournament organizer approves. NBC, the network that carried the Skins Game, promised to air several live updates of the Corning action during its tape-delayed broadcast. And Robbins, because he was touched by King's loyalty in turning down her invitation, lobbied Blue and Skins sponsor JCPenney to re-invite her. This time King accepted, and on Sunday, for playing 18 holes over two days and finishing last she collected $45,000. Stephenson, the winner, made off with $200,000.
On a per diem basis their colleagues in Corning didn't fare as well. After four days and 72 holes winner Bradley took home $52,500; Sheehan, the runner-up, won $32,375. On Saturday Bradley had said she was disappointed at being passed over for a Skins invitation; by Sunday the slight was forgotten. Almost. At the awards ceremony she delighted her Corning audience when she exclaimed, "Who gives a damn about the Skins!"
Despite the flap over the schedule, Robbins supports Blue. He says the commissioner is "working his tail off to put the LPGA on the map and to get purses up to where they should be." Blue's only failing, according to Robbins, is his "damn-the-torpedoes-full-speed-ahead approach."
Blue arrived in Corning last Saturday afternoon and spent most of his high visibility weekend mending fences by mixing with the galleries and dining with tournament officials. A former coffee-liqueur marketer who has headed the LPGA since December 1988, Blue defended his management style and dismissed critics who say he mistreated Corning.
"One of the charges I received when I was named commissioner was to increase the awareness of this tour," he said on Saturday evening. "I never believed [the Skins Game] was going to detract. I firmly believed it was going to help because it was going to focus the most popular televised golf event on women for the first time in history. That's a plus for everybody."
By tournament weekend, Corning had put the Skins Game out of its mind and was ready to watch the golfers battle the rolling greens and the avenues of evergreens, locusts and sugar maples that encroach on the fairways of the 6,006-yard Corning Country Club course. The local NBC affiliate, a tournament sponsor, ignored the Skins broadcast. Instead, the station, WETM-TV, provided live coverage of the last four holes at Corning on Saturday and Sunday.
Still, Mayor Kostolansky warned that "it wouldn't sit too well" if ABC, the network now negotiating for next year's Skins Game, were to proceed with current plans to air the show immediately following the Indianapolis 500. Although Blue and ABC are still discussing that one, Robbins says IMG and the LPGA Players' Council have assured him that he will have veto power over any such event slated for the week of his tournament. "If we don't want it, it won't happen," says Robbins, confidently.
Whatever happens next year won't dampen the enthusiasm of Price and the other Corning residents who give the tournament its homemade charm. "We're a small town, and this is a big thing," says Price, owner of The Golden Unicorn, a needlework and gift shop that twice has won the window decorating contest. "If we have an affair, people get behind it, and that's what it's all about."
A downtown leader board told Coring fans that winner Bradley was fifth after 36 holes.
Disappointed at first at being left out of the Skins Game, Bradley got even the best way.
Small-town gestures made the pros feel at home.