IT DOESN'T YET have the glamour of the Dinah Shore or gravitas of the U.S. Women's Open, but next week's inaugural KPMG Women's PGA Championship is already the most important tournament of this LPGA season. For starters, it has brought a needed clarity and symmetry to the major championships on the women's side. There were already his-and-hers Opens, here and abroad, and the Dinah Shore (now the ANA Inspiration) is a good companion to the Masters, as it too heralds spring and returns to the same course year after year. The fourth LPGA major has always been a bit underwhelming, not to mention confusing—at one point it was the Du Maurier Classic, a now-defunct Canadian tournament named after a cigarette company, and more recently the Wegman's LPGA Championship, named after a grocery-store chain and played in the booming metropolis of Pittsford, N.Y., a suburb of Rochester. Bringing the fourth major under the imprimatur of the PGA of America instantly makes it a bigger deal. So, too, does taking the tournament to a classic course with a rich pedigree, Westchester Country Club, in the shadow of Gotham.
(For the record, in this formulation the Evian Championship, christened the fifth LPGA major in 2013, is akin to the Players: a new-money event trying too hard to be something it's not.)
But the importance of the Women's PGA Championship transcends the competition. "Sometimes a golf tournament is more than just a golf tournament," says Pete Bevacqua, the CEO of the PGA of America. With the help of KPMG, the event is being turned into a weeklong celebration of female empowerment. The KPMG Women's Leadership Summit will be held on-site during tournament week, featuring a series of panel discussions and workshops designed to marry golf and the business world. The summit will stream live on CNBC.com, and in addition to various CEOs and dignitaries, all of the players in the field are invited, to say nothing of the girls who prevailed in their age groups at this year's Drive, Chip and Putt Championship. Condoleeza Rice, the former Secretary of State who is now a member of Augusta National, will give the closing keynote address.
"I always felt like the keys to making this event a bigger deal were a big venue, a big purse and a lot of exposure on network TV, and we're getting all three, which is huge," says Stacy Lewis, with a nod to the $3.5 million purse (second only to the U.S. Women's Open) and six hours of weekend coverage on NBC. "But the summit is going to be a really big part of the identity of the event. It sends a powerful message that the corporate world is behind us. It's awesome for younger girls to hear that and see that you can have a great experience inside the ropes, but that golf can also be a big part of a business career."
The message remains urgent, given that, remarkably, as recently as last year there were three courses on the British Open rota that have male-only memberships, and that Augusta National and the R&A—a de facto ruling body and an actual one, respectively—have accepted female members only at the point of a bayonet. As an industry and a pastime, golf is in grave danger, given its declining participation rates and graying demographics. Less than a quarter of golfers in this country are female, so getting more girls and women into the game is paramount. The Women's PGA Championship is a crucial new portal, offering big-time golf but, more important, an unmistakable welcome sign.
"I always felt like the keys to making this event a bigger deal were a big venue, a big purse and a lot of exposure on network TV," says Lewis (above). "We're getting all three."
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