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The LPGA tour’s annual arrival at the Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage means that spring, too, has arrived in the Coachella Valley.

The 2019 ANA Inspiration tournament—“Golf’s First Major,” as the program cover declares—begins in earnest on Thursday, April 4, and will wind up this Sunday, April 7. Will we see another edge-of-your-seat playoff finish this year? No one can say. But all of the world’s top women pro players are here, and they’re all teeing off for a shot at the title and the winner’s check of nearly $500,000.

As a result of the wet winter, the verdant rolling hills of the championship layout are lush and thick. Traditionally, courses hosting major tournaments are prepared to be at their most challenging. In particular, the length of the rough is always a major discussion point.

“It’s tall (at) a few holes, but just the thickness of it definitely slows the club down going through it. It’s how the rough usually is at majors, so it’s definitely setting up as it should,” said 2014 winner and perennial crowd favorite Lexi Thompson.

Said two-time winner Brittany Lincicome: “It’s fantastic. They’ve lengthened three holes, and I’m hoping they play it back as far as possible. The rough is thick. I’m playing the yellow ball probably again this week so (it) may be easier to find in the rough.”

Last year’s winner, Pernilla Lindberg, added: “The rough is juicy. I know it’s been a wet winter out here. … If they just leave it the way it is at the moment, it’s going to be a good test, a good challenge.”

The magic of the legendary Dinah Shore tournament on this famous golfing track was best summed up by 2011 winner Stacy Lewis: “I love this golf course. It was the first time I played as an amateur. Obviously, I had a really good result. I love playing in the desert and just the history of this tournament. Just coming in with good vibes, seeing all the girls jump in the pond—it’s my favorite tradition we have. I’d love to be able to do it again.”

Rest assured: Some victorious and thrilled woman will take the jump on Sunday. Scroll down for a handful of photos from the day before the start of this year’s tournament.

Published in Snapshot

Imagine legendary U.S. soccer stars Abby Wambach and Julie Foudy kicking around a soccer ball here in the Coachella Valley … on a golf course.

No, it’s not an April Fool’s joke.

Welcome to the fast-growing sport called FootGolf, a combination between soccer and golf, that’s getting lots of attention, nationally and internationally, across all generations and genders.

Wambach and Foudy, both retired U.S. National Team soccer players, each with two Olympic gold medals to their credit, will participate along with LPGA golf stars in an exhibition match against Japan on Tuesday, March 29, at the Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, as part of the ANA Inspiration women’s golf tournament (formerly known as the Dinah Shore).

In fact, the headquarters of the American FootGolf League (AFGL) is here in Palm Springs.

“Coachella Valley is the U.S. golf capital; hence AFGL was established here (in) 2011,” said Roberto Balestrini, the founder of the AFGL. The AFGL is the national governing body for the sport and a member of the Federation for International FootGolf.

Balestrini said anybody can play the sport regardless of age and skill.

“The game is played with a regulation No. 5 soccer ball at a golf course facility on shortened holes with 21-inch diameter cups located yards away from golf greens,” Balestrini said.

The point is to reach the cups with as few kicks as possible. FootGolf can be played on nine holes for about an hour, or 18 holes for about two hours. The sport itself does not require expensive gear and equipment.

“All you need is golf attire, a soccer ball and shoes with no cleats,” Balestrini said.

According to Balestrini, the game is on the rise in large part because youth are discovering the sport and coming out to play it. It’s also helping the revenues of some golf courses.

Locally, FootGolf can be played at Desert Willows Golf Resort in Palm Desert, at The Lights in Indio, the Golf Center of Palm Desert and the Cathedral Canyon Golf Club in Cathedral City.

“The AFGL has a partnership with the National Golf Course Owners Association and works very closely with the entire golf industry since it is (the sport’s foundation),” Balestrini said.

There are 125 golf courses in Coachella Valley, so there’s a lot of potential for this new sport to grow.

“The beauty about FootGolf is that it can be as fun or as competitive as you want,” Balestrini said.

The ANA Inspiration’s Footgolf Faceoff: USA vs. Japan will take place at 5 p.m., Tuesday, March 29, at the Mission Hills Country Club, in Rancho Mirage. Admission and parking for the event are free; park at the Agua Caliente Casino Resort Spa, 32250 Bob Hope Drive, in Rancho Mirage. Complimentary shuttles to the course begin running at 3 p.m. For more information, visit www.anainspiration.com/footgolf.

Published in Features

The newly named 2015 ANA Inspiration—the first LPGA major tournament of the year—delivered challenges, frustration, exhilaration, relief, celebration and, yes, inspiration to the players who came to the Mission Hills Country Club over the last week.

For the winner, Brittany Lincicome of Florida, the final day of play brought her plenty of exhilaration and celebration after she persevered through sporadic wind storms, the challenging Mission Hills Country Club layout and the determined play of runner-up Stacy Lewis.

Lincicome, who had spent most of the tournament a few shots behind the leaders, exploded into a tie for the lead at the end of her final round with an eagle on the par-5 18th hole. It was repeat of the extraordinary display she put on in 2009, when she won her first Dinah Shore championship. Playing right in front of the leading pair, her score of 69 put the pressure squarely on Lewis. With a makeable birdie putt to claim the title outright, Lewis rolled her ball past the cup, setting up what became a three-hole mini-marathon playoff between these tour friends as darkness threatened to bring its own halt to the proceedings for the day.

Finally, on the third hole, Lewis faltered, and Lincicome closed out her win with a par.

“I mean, to make eagle on any hole is pretty incredible, and then to do it on Sunday at a major, at this major where I did it in 2009, it’s really surreal,” Lincicome said.

Lewis was congenial in defeat.

“We’re good friends,” Lewis told the media afterward. “I don’t think she’s won in a while, so it’s a great win for her. … If anything, I like seeing three American flags at the top of the leaderboard.”

Fellow American Morgan Pressel finished third.

As for pure inspiration: The low amateur for the week was California’s own Haley Moore, who won her spot with a victory last Monday in the Champions Junior Challenge on the Mission Hills Arnold Palmer course.

“When (tournament director) Gabe Codding asked me a week ago how I hope to be inspired, I’m like, ‘I really want to qualify,’” she said. “This whole past week, I’ve just been inspired by being here. The other amateurs are really good, and I was surprised to be the low amateur.”

Moore’s caddy for the four days of the ANA Inspiration competition was Lisa Stanley of Rancho Mirage, the 2012 Mission Hills Country Club women’s champion, as well as a fan.

“I volunteered to caddy for her. It was the first time I ever caddied, and it was awesome,” Stanley said. “It gave me goosebumps. It was super-fun.”

Stanley offered some personal observations about Moore, an aspiring tour pro. “Haley’s a good listener, and yet she makes her own decisions. We worked well together, and it was a very special experience for me.”

What was Moore’s most memorable moment of ANA Inspiration, other than some of the shots she played? “It was probably at the end of this final round as I was walking down along the grandstand to the bridge. Every one was so happy for me. If I’m here next year, they’ll know exactly who I am.”

Scroll down to see a photo gallery from the tournament.

Published in Snapshot

Promotion is everything when it comes to sports events. Dinah Shore knew that; that’s why, back in 1972, she attached her name, and fame, to a brand-new women’s golf event at the Mission Hills Country Club.

To this day, many still call the LPGA’s first major of the year simply Dinah. Soon, that might be the only name this tournament has.

As of Monday, April 7, what has been known since 2002 as the Kraft Nabisco Championship will cease to exist under that name. The food giant, associated with the tourney since 1982, will not be the title sponsor anymore. Instead, the LPGA will take over the event, and the hunt for a new sponsor will start.

Remember the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, the other famed local golf extravaganza? A while after Hope’s passing, Chrysler dropped out, and the event struggled to regain its former glory. Thankfully, Humana and the Clinton Foundation eventually stepped in, in 2012, as sponsors.

I’ve covered the Kraft Nabisco Championship for 15 years now. I’ve watched the great champions like Annika Sorenstam, Lorena Ochoa and Karrie Webb jump into the lake adjacent to the 18th hole after wining the tourney. That victory leap is one of the most notable traditions in the game.

So how do you sell golf history nowadays? I asked Annika Sörenstam, a three-time winner here at Mission Hills, that very question. The now-retired golf superstar is optimistic about the tourney's future.

“I’m pretty sure that the tournament will stay here,” she said. “First of all, this is a major championship. There’'s so much history here. This, I think, is a really an exciting opportunity for a company to be involved with. It's just a lot of positive energy. I’m very optimistic that the things are going to go well here.”

Sorenstam isn’t the only person who is optimistic about the tourney’s future. Tournament director Gabe Codding is optimistic, too—and his job could be on the line thanks to the uncertainty over the sponsor.

“With this year’s event, we’re celebrating the 30-year legacy of Kraft Nabisco as a sponsor, and I was there for 20 years of it,” he said. “This tournament has emerged as the most historic event on the LPGA tour. So right now, it’s all about finding the right partner who loves the location, who loves the history and who loves to be involved with the first major.”

Codding is confident that a new title sponsor will be found, perhaps within six to eight months.

"We will take a time to find the right sponsor, to make sure that the chosen sponsor stays with the tournament for a long time," he said.

As for his future with the tournament, Codding said that he started working at the event when he was barely 18, and is prepared to exit if needed after serving more than five years as the director.

“The day I know that there’s somebody who can contribute more to the tournament than I can, I'll be ready to step aside. I'll be OK with it!" Codding said.

There are sporadic rumors that the tourney could move to Arizona or even Nevada. However, that’s unlikely to happen.

The tournament’s traditions include a statue of Dinah Shore at the 18th green. How could you move a monument to Dinah—the first lady of golf—and the legacy she created here at Mission Hills to Las Vegas? Let’s hope she will forever stay here, greeting the champions on their way to history. 

Published in Local Issues

As she teed off Thursday morning, April 3, at the Kraft Nabisco Championship, Nicole Castrale had a lot to prove.

The 11-year LPGA veteran and onetime Palm Desert High School golfer needed to show that any physical concerns caused by her September 2013 hip-replacement surgery were behind her. She has been swinging the club again for just three months, after all.

By the end of the day, she had proven a lot, turning in a one-under-par 71 that put her five strokes off the lead and in a tie for 14th place.

“I now have a right hip that works, so it’s nice,” said the Palm Desert resident. “I’ve been able to pick up some speed, which is good, so I’m hitting further off the tee.”

To what did she attribute her opening round success? “I just played real solid,” Castrale said. “I hit a lot of fairways, a lot of greens. I didn’t make problems worse, and I just stayed real patient out there.”

Playing just down the road from her home also seems to agree with Nicole. “I’d say it took us 11 minutes to get here this morning. It’s nice to sleep in your own bed,” she said.

Is there added pressure to perform well in front of family and friends? “I always thought this golf course set up well for my game,” she said about the Mission Hills Country Club. “It’s a great course. One of the best we play all year.”

She then admitted that she does tend to force things a bit when playing at home. “My parents are here, and I’ve been here since eighth-grade. I can’t imagine living anywhere else. It’s an easy place to get around. My golf coach is here. I’ve got a great golf course I practice at, Toscana Country Club. It’s just home.”

In fact, family is never far away from Castrale when she’s at work: Her husband, Craig, doubles as her caddie. So how did Craig feel about their first day’s results?

“It’s a great start at any tournament, especially at a major, to get anything under par,” he said. “Long way to go, but definitely nice to have it under our belt and get the afternoon to rest.”

What do the Castrales do in the Coachella Valley when it’s time to kick back and relax?

“Basically, we hang out at our house with our daughter,” said Castrale, laughing. “We’ve gone to The Living Desert, but we’re homebodies.”

Husband/caddie Craig agreed. “I’m just excited to spend as much time as possible with my wife and our daughter and all the family and friends. It’s great.”

Published in Snapshot

Monday marked the beginning of the now 42-year-old LPGA Kraft Nabisco Championship, and the event began with a one-day tournament featuring California’s top young amateur female golfers.

The prize for the winner of the KNC Champions Junior Challenge: the final qualifying spot in the major championship’s field.

This year marked only the third anniversary of this new tradition and offered 39 excited young golfers—selected by a committee of the Southern California Golf Association—a special opportunity. Two of the talented amateurs—15-year-old Jiyoon Jang, of Rancho Mirage, and 17-year-old Mackenzie Raim, of Palm Desert—are locally grown, and both were members of the Palm Desert High School varsity girls’ golf team.

Each team of three players was accompanied by a previous winner of the prestigious Kraft Nabisco Championship, which was founded by Dinah Shore back in 1972. This year’s champion coach squad included, among many others, LPGA legends like Annika Sorenstam, Nancy Lopez, Amy Alcott and Pat Bradley, who mentored Jiyoon Jang’s team as the players made their way around the Arnold Palmer Course at the Mission Hills Country Club.

“These young ladies are the future of our game,” said Bradley, the winner of the 1986 tournament, at the end of the round. “This game has given me so much, and to help these young ladies today was a great thrill for me.”

Jiyoon Jang shot a 3-over-par 75 on the day, and finished in a tie for 17th, five strokes behind the winner.

“I could have made a few more putts and gotten a few more chips, but this was an unforgettable memory for me,” she said after her round. “Pat Bradley said to us on the first tee that it’s not life and death—it’s just a game, honestly. I’m just going to take one shot at a time and just keep going.”

Bradley said she was impressed by the 15-year-old golfer.

“Miss Jang played great,” Bradley said. “I was very proud of her. She missed a couple of putts that I know she thought she’d made, and of course, this game can beat you up if you’re not careful.”

Bradley noted that Jang finished strong. “I was very pleased to see her stay positive, and when she made an eagle on 18, that was her reward for staying positive today.”

Jang said that eagle was the highlight of her round. “I wasn’t really going in to make an eagle. I just hit my fairway wood and tried to keep a smooth tempo. Then when I hit my putt, I just stuck with my line, and it dropped right in the center of the hole. It was really exciting, because Pat Bradley just started cheering and screaming.”

Meanwhile, Jang’s Palm Desert High teammate, Mackenzie Raim, enjoyed an even-par 72 finish, which put her in a tie for fifth. Lilia Vu, of Fountain Valley, was the winner at -2.

All in all, not a bad day for the local challengers. Scroll down to view an image gallery.

Published in Snapshot