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59th U.S. Women's Open hits sleepy South Hadley, Mass.

By Kiel Christianson, Senior Writer

SOUTH HADLEY, Mass. -- This western Massachusetts town of 17,000 epitomizes the traditions and values of New England. At its center is the stately campus of Mount Holyoke College, where just $40,000 a year will buy your daughter tuition, room, and board for a year.

One of the so-called "Seven Sisters," along with the likes of Bryn Mawr and Wellesley, Mount Holyoke has seen some of the nation's brightest and most well-connected young women pass through its red-stone halls. Among these are Lillian Ross ('32) and Joan McAnaney Fay ('73) - respectively, the daughter of legendary golf course architect Donald Ross, and the wife of USGA executive director David Fay.

In addition to Mount Holyoke's picturesque campus, the college is blessed with The Orchards, a classic 6,473-yard, par-71 Donald Ross design. Despite the layout's pedigree, and its successful hosting of the 1987 Junior Girls Championship, Mount Holyoke's College Street Journal reports that when athletic director Laurie Priest made the announcement that The Orchards would host the 2004 U.S. Women's Open, everyone thought she was either joking or mistaken.

So how did the biggest women's tournament end up at a course owned by one of America's oldest women-only colleges? If the proverb, "It's not what you know, it's who you know" is true anywhere, it is true in golf. And it is most certainly true of the 59th Open.

Playing musical venues

Given that The Orchards is a well-respected Donald Ross design, and that it is owned by a prestigious all-women's college, it seems like a natural venue for a Women's Open. The route by which the Open came here, however, is anything but straightforward.

According to Cindy Johnson, one of three members of the Executive Steering Committee and owner and president of Fran Johnson's Racquet and Golf Headquarters in W. Springfield, a serendipitous series of events led to the award of the 2004 Open to The Orchards. "Pumpkin Ridge was on tap to hold the 2004 Open," says Johnson, who attended the 2003 Open at Pumpkin Ridge and met with USGA officials there. "Then the scheduled 2003 venue [Lake Merced Golf Club, Daly City, Calif.] became unavailable to do it, which resulted in a hole for 2003 and a short window to decide. Pumpkin Ridge stepped in to take 2003, leaving a hole for 2004."

This is where fate took over. "[USGA Executive Director] David Fay's wife, Joan McAnaney Fay, was playing in a Friends of Athletics event at The Orchards," relates Johnson. Mrs. Fay is a Mount Holyoke College alum, so [David] Fay was already familiar with the layout." According to Johnson, the course GM sort of off-handedly suggested it as a championship venue, and one thing led to another. "The USGA loves the golf course," says Johnson. "So do David Fay and [former USGA President] Judy Bell."

Culmination of a rich history

In 1922, the Orchards was but a glimmer in the eye of Holyoke industrialist Joseph A. Skinner, who decided that his daughter Elisabeth, an avid and talented golfer, should have her own course. Wanting the very best, Skinner called upon Donald J. Ross, the Frank Lloyd Wright of early twentieth-century golf course architects.

Skinner provided Ross with a rolling 200-acre site across the road from his summer estate, just north of the Mount Holyoke campus. The first nine holes were built in 1922, and the second nine added in 1929. The course became known as The Orchards, for the rows of apple trees Skinner planted there in the early years. At the time of his death in 1941, The Orchards was sold to the college for the modest sum of $25,000.

The golf course was a worthy addition to Mount Holyoke's ambitious physical education program instituted by Mary Lyon, who founded the college in 1837. At a time when women were discouraged from physical activity, Lyon believed that intellectual and physical education were of equal importance. She required students to do daily calisthenics and take one-mile walks. Although the college's athletic activities have changed since Lyon's day, they are still going strong. In September 2000, Sports Illustrated for Women rated Mount Holyoke the number one women's college for women athletes.

Golf team coach Shawn Durocher said she expects to see more recruitment activity in the wake of the tournament. "I tell people we have a beautiful course, a 20-minute walk from the farthest point on campus," Durocher said. "When they see it on TV, they'll realize what I'm talking about."

Setting the stage for a major

In 1999 when Mount Holyoke entered into a 25-year lease of the property with Arnold Palmer Golf Management. The arrangement has been a tremendous boon for the course and the college. Palmer has invested $1.5 million in improvements, including $800,000 to restore the course to Ross' original design. In 2000, the organization donated $500,000 to establish an endowment fund in support of the college's golf program, named in honor of Winifred W. Palmer, late wife of Arnold.

In preparation for the Open, seven new tee boxes have been constructed, the practice facility has been greatly expanded, and an entire new drainage system has been installed. According to Nicole René, public/media relations and ticket manager, the investments are paying off: The course looks great, and ticket sales are at about 60 percent of target.

This last figure is deceiving, though. "The Women's Open has never sold out," says Cindy Johnson, "so the USGA would like to see one day sell out. A one-day sellout would be 25,000 spectators. But we've said to heck with selling out one day. We want to sell out the whole thing."

The optimism of Johnson and the rest of the organizers might not be unfounded. South Hadley is a very central location. According to USGA officials, if every USGA member within a 120-mile radius were to buy one ticket, the entire event would indeed be a sellout. And if this happens, The Orchards in 2004, like Hilary Lunke in 2003, might just be the biggest surprise success story in women's golf.

The U.S. Women's Open will be held June 28 -- July 4. For ticket, sponsor, and volunteer information for the 2004 U.S. Women's Open at The Orchards, phone (800) 513-OPEN, or visit the website at 2004Uswomensopen.com.

Kiel ChristiansonKiel Christianson, Senior Writer

Kiel Christianson has lived, worked, traveled and golfed extensively on three continents. As senior writer and equipment editor for WorldGolf.com, he has reviewed courses, resorts, and golf academies from California to Ireland, including his home course, Lake of the Woods G.C. in Mahomet, Ill. Read his golf blog here and follow him on Twitter @GolfWriterKiel.

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