RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. -- The open-palmed, arm-extended statue of Dinah Shore on the 18th hole of the course bearing her name is intended to welcome players arriving at the island green of the par-5 finishing hole.
On Sunday, the statue’s salutation seemed that of an inverse nature.
Amid an emotional Sunday at Mission Hills Country Club, 24-year-old Jennifer Kupcho claimed golf’s first major championship of the season – and, perhaps more palpably, the desert’s final hosting of the tournament -- winning by a two-shot margin over fellow American Jessica Korda on 14-under 274.
Next season, following 51 years in Rancho Mirage, the event will move to Houston, Texas, at a course yet to be named.
Playing in front of packed galleries (where were all these people five years ago?), Kupcho made full use of her six-shot cushion entering what was namely a coronation Sunday, staving off suitors despite shooting 2 over par in the final round and pairing five birdies with seven bogeys.
Sunday’s win was not just the first major of Kupcho’s career but also her maiden LPGA victory.
The event’s last round echoed the vibe of its preceding days, played with an underlying sentiment of sadness and finality. For its part, new sponsor Chevron, despite a 60 percent purse rise to an impressive $5 million, seemed to invest little fervor in its desert one-and-done.
For the energy company’s lone stamp of aesthetic, Mission Hills’ centralized, high-traffic fan and clubhouse zone was decorated with a new tournament motif, presenting a posterized display of past champions. Crafted in the Post-Impressionist style of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, the Art Nouveau depictions of Lexi Thompson and Lydia Ko and Patty Tavatanakit and Pernilla Lindberg were drawn in silhouette, which is to offer that the art, much like the new sponsor, proved faceless across the fateful week.
Presenting more expression, however, was a legend readying for her own Sunday farewell.
Hall of Famer Judy Rankin, winner of the event in 1976 (seven years before it gained major status) and known in broadcast circles as the First Lady of Golf, isn’t setting down her mic for good, but she has let it be known that the Chevron final round would be her last broadcast as lead analyst for Golf Channel.
In the hours preceding her Sunday work, Rankin made time to chat with Golf News Net.
“As an LPGA member, it is a celebratory day in what this tournament has meant and what it did for us; especially the very beginnings of what it did for us in the early and mid-70s,” said Rankin. “There are so many fond memories, and, every year, it’s been a big part of what we look forward to in the season.”
The 28-time LPGA winner, omnipresent at the event since its 1972 inception, also spoke toward the realities of the Chevron move.
“It will definitely be missed for a lot of reasons. Yet, the way I see it, is that this was a tradition for a bit of a generation, and it has spilled over into today’s generations,” Rankin continued. “So I think (the Chevron move) will be their progress for their generation. I mean, the LPGA is playing for $90 million this year. There’s a different face to it now. A big sponsor like Chevron is extremely important; I think going to a big metropolitan area is extremely important, and network TV is extremely important. Women’s golf has taken a huge growth spurt, and I think this (move) is probably fitting because of it.”
Rankin added that turning the pages of the tournament’s history is a chapter of education and tradition.
“The one thing we can’t replace, because of the tournament’s history at this specific place, is a lot of today’s players really respect the past and what has happened here,” she said. “I think a lot of today’s players are, in some ways, more well-educated on the past because of this tournament.”
While Sunday offered an announcement of a Legends Tour (the LPGA's version of the PGA Tour Champions) event likely to debut at Mission Hills in the spring of 2023 as a pseudo-replacement tournament, the balance of the final round’s chatter was spent revisiting what was.
Few non-players have such perspective of the event as Gabe Codding, who began working with the tournament as a volunteer in 1996 before eventually ascending to the event’s tournament director from 2009-18.
“Now, today, it’s real,” said Codding at the onset of the final round. “There’s definitely a heaviness which wasn’t yet tangible back when this news broke in October. All the memories flood in; the years kind of blend together.”
During Codding’s tenure as tournament director, he felt an initial scare of the event’s potential instability.
“After Kraft left as a sponsor in ’14 and before ANA came in the next year, there was an ‘Oh, man,’ moment, and I did have to process what would happen with the event,” Codding added. “And I was just so determined not to let is die. But, personally, I never thought the tournament would leave.”
Codding, who also managed Brooke Henderson across her first two pro seasons, has seen the women’s game from multiple vantages, and, final day emotions and traditions considered, understands the necessity of donning golf’s business cap.
“Having seen this tour from both the players’ side and the management side – the players, they grind hard; they give up a lot to do what they do. And, on the management side, it’s also grinding for every dollar,” said Codding. “So, in that respect, playing for $5 million with a big sponsor – that’s awesome; this Chevron deal is a dream offer.”
Codding then took a moment to pause.
“And that’s coupled with a super-heavy sadness that, next year, this won’t be here anymore,” he concluded.
After Kupcho’s winning splash into the pond adjacent to the home hole on the Dinah Shore Tournament Course, the final dive saw four LPGA veterans – including past champions Amy Alcott and Sandra Palmer -- take their own last dip and leaps as the pond waters crested, then ebbed toward the eponymous statue. And she now seemed to wave goodbye.
And the final, tiny waves moved southeast, towards Houston.