LPGA Tour can't lose the 'Dinah'

On Monday, I received a photo from a friend working in the locker room at Mission Hills CC, site of this week's Kraft Nabisco Championship. It was a photo of my locker and nameplate. It has been 10 years since I last competed there, and the second of my two wins at the season's first major was in the last century, but I still have a locker space, and that photo brought a flood of wonderful memories.

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Dottie Pepper celebrates in 1999 after her second victory in what was then known as the Nabisco Dinah Shore.

I suppose I will always refer to this championship as the "Dinah," for glamorous-yet-understated Hollywood celebrity Dinah Shore, who took this event from a little desert gathering of friends to one of the premier events in all of championship golf. She put her name on it, nurtured it, used it as leverage among her famous and powerful friends, and even lived on the property. It was an event where I received a sponsor exemption as an amateur in 1985 but didn't have enough money to make the trip to California from the East Coast. Now you get a sense of why this championship meant so much to me as a player, and why winning it twice was even more special.

Watching last week's Kia Classic and hearing the story of Dori Carter try to qualify for her first "Dinah" also brought back a few memories. In my rookie year of 1988, one of the ways you could qualify to play at Mission Hills was to win, finish runner-up or finish third in an official event on the LPGA Tour within three years of the championship.

The week before the "Dinah," the tour played in Phoenix. I finished second to Oh Hee Ku, the first player from South Korea to win an LPGA event, and punched my ticket to Rancho Mirage. It also happened to be spring break week in the California desert. One of my biggest challenges was to find a hotel room, because no hotel proprietors wanted another noisy spring break partier. Guess I looked pretty young! Regardless, I found shelter with the help of the locker room staff and went on to finish in the top 10 in my first major as an LPGA member.

I also remember being paired with Louise Suggs, an LPGA founder and Hall of Fame member, for the first two rounds. What a special memory. I asked her to sign my visor after we finished. I hope Dori Carter looks back on her first event at Mission Hills with the fondness that I still do 26 years later.

Last month, the Kraft corporation announced it will no longer be the title sponsor of this championship after the completion of Sunday's final round. Sponsorship of tournaments comes and goes on every professional tour, but tournaments -- and majors in particular -- have a history of their own and need to stay intact. The champions of the "Dinah"/Kraft Nabisco Championship are a who's who of the LPGA's past and of today's tour on the rise. And for many who are just now dreaming of winning a major, it's a tournament that can change a life and career.

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Inbee Park, left, took the traditional leap into Poppie's Pond after winning the Kraft Nabisco Championship last year.

This championship needs to remain the first major of the year, the sign that winter no longer rules the calendar and that the golf season has truly begun. It is wall-to-wall green grass, blue skies and snowcapped mountains in the distance. It is the now-traditional champion's leap into Poppie's Pond. Would it be great to have the event remain in the desert and particularly at Mission Hills? You bet. You don't win at Mission Hills by scraping it around. The course demands good ball striking, some length, management of shot selection and strategy, a strong hold of your nerves and a healthy dose of guts.

The venue is known by viewers and attendees, a comfort factor much like Augusta National is for the those who will watch and attend next week's Masters. To lose this event would be a real setback for the LPGA after so much positive news regarding its expanding schedule. Here's to someone seeing this sponsorship opportunity the way Dinah Shore did: the chance for a big and meaningful early-season splash -- and not just a splash in Poppie's Pond.

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