Ford Championship 2024 marks milestone moment for LPGA Tour in Gilbert

LPGA commissioner Mollie Marcoux Samaan unveils the 2024 Ford Championship, a historic moment for women’s golf in Gilbert. (Photo by Jesse Brawders/Cronkite News)

GILBERT – When the LPGA Tour was created in 1950 by 13 brave women who decided they were good enough to play professionally, there was no blueprint for them to lay out how to create a professional sports circuit for women.

These ladies did everything themselves, from writing their own press releases, to setting up the courses before tournaments, to traveling via caravan to ensure that their dream would turn into a reality.

Not everyone was ready to accept women in sports in 1950, so the early LPGA Tour golfers even created signals to communicate among themselves and keep each other safe during events.

Now 74 years later, the tour has become a popular attraction to fans and will be making a stop in Gilbert for the first time in LPGA history. LPGA commissioner Mollie Marcoux Samaan was on hand for the unveiling Feb. 13 and expressed hope that the women’s game will continue to thrive now and in the future.

“Arizona is the home of golf in so many different ways. And we know that people in this community absolutely love golf, and the opportunity for them to see the best in the world is really important.” Marcoux Samaan said.

The field will consist of 144 golfers, competing for a $2-million purse on March 28-31 at Seville Golf & Country Club in Gilbert with Ford being the title sponsor of the tournament.

It is the first professional golfing event at Seville, which opened in 2000, and will be one of six courses this season new to the LPGA tour docket.

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The Ford Championship is the seventh stop on this year’s tour, which boasts a record-setting prize pot of nearly $118 million, a $10 million increase from last season’s total.

Marcoux Samaan called the Ford Championship reveal “a great moment for women’s golf, (and) for women’s sports.”

Marcoux Samaan, who has led the LPGA Tour since May 2021, was excited to bring the circuit back to the Valley, a community with a love of golf, great courses and – typically – ideal weather.

Current LPGA Tour golfers Mina Harigae and Alena Sharp, both Valley residents, also appeared at the announcement and will be competing in the championship in March.

Sharp, who twice has represented Canada in the Olympics, received a sponsor’s exemption into the Ford Championship, revealing that she was “overcome with joy” when she heard the news. She has been a member of the Seville Golf & Country Club for years and is grateful to share the experience with her fellow local members.

She considers Seville “one of the best courses in Arizona” due to the quality of the greens and of the course as a whole.

Harigae shared similar enthusiasm for the tour’s stop in the Valley, joking that it will be great to sleep in her own bed throughout the tournament.

Local young golfers were honorary attendees of the press conference, showcasing the mission of the LPGA Tour to create a more equal and sustainable playing field for the next generation of women’s golf, and women’s sports as a whole.

Marcoux Samaan said it made her heart feel “warm and special” getting to meet the girls at Seville, reminding her of the LPGA’s mission.

“The mission of the LPGA is to be the global leader in women’s professional golf,” Marcoux Samaan said. “But the second part of that is to use our platform to elevate, empower and advance opportunities for girls and women.”

Golf was a big thing for Harigae while she was growing up as one of just two girls from her community who were interested in the game, which is why she appreciated seeing so many young girls showing interest in playing golf.

Harigae hopes that as the next generation of talent joins the tour, there will be more junior golfers in the future who will have the opportunity to showcase their talents in front of growing crowds.

When Sharp joined the LPGA in 2005, she was taught to leave the tour better than she found it for the next generation, and she intends to keep that tradition going.

With local golfers and fans in attendance, the 2024 Ford Championship promises to be a celebration of the sport's rich legacy and bright future. (Photo by Jesse Brawders/Cronkite News)

With local golfers and fans in attendance, the 2024 Ford Championship promises to be a celebration of the sport’s rich legacy and bright future. (Photo by Jesse Brawders/Cronkite News)

Sharp, 42, is hoping that the LPGA will just keep raising the bar for its cause with every tournament, leading to more local and international recognition for the association and for women’s golf as a whole.

That first LPGA Tour more than 70 years ago included 15 tournaments across the country, with Babe Zaharias winning eight events and taking home a tour-leading $14,800.

The tour made its first stop in Arizona in 1953 for the Phoenix Weathervane at Arizona Country Club, where Patty Berg and Louise Suggs shared first place. The tournament was part of a special four-leg event within the tour in the Cross Country 11 Hole Weathervane, which also had legs in Boca Raton, Florida; Philadelphia and San Francisco.

Since then, Arizona has regularly played host to LPGA events across the state, with the tour’s most recent visit coming last year at the 2023 Drive On Championship at Superstition Mountain Golf and Country Club.

Since 1980, there have only been a handful of years in which the LPGA didn’t stage an event in the Phoenix area, and the Valley was the site of the Founders Cup, which paid homage to those original LPGA Tour members, from 2011-2020. The 2020 event was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the tournament moved to New Jersey in 2021.

As women’s sports continue to rise in popularity internationally, the LPGA continues to be at the forefront of change.

There is still work to be done according to Marcoux Samaan, but she felt that they are getting closer to parity with the men’s game. One of their next steps to reach that goal is to have fans connect more with the golfers on the course and in real life.

“I’d like to have more people know our athletes and to have more people see the value in what we do,” Marcoux Samaan said. “I think that will take us to the next level.”

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Jesse Brawders expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in educational studies. Brawders is a freelance esports commentator.