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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

The Coachella Valley is a place where retired celebrities, in some ways, are taken for granted. Among us are retired movie and television stars, business tycoons, writers, NASA scientists and sports professionals—including Shirley Spork, one of the 13 original founding members of the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA), and a renowned sports-education professional.

Spork, 90, is a long-time resident of Palm Desert. The red-haired girl from a working-class family would go on to, through personal determination, break ground and help make a lasting contribution for women in a sport that had never been friendly to females.

Spork was born and raised in Detroit, the only child of parents who did not play golf. At one point in her early childhood, the family lived next to a golf course.

“There was nothing much to do in the neighborhood,” she says. “I saw the boys caddying, but I wanted to play the game.”

Spork’s first club was a putter she bought for a dollar she had earned by selling, back to golfers, the golf balls that had gone into the water between her home and the course.

“I was about 11 when I was constantly going onto the course, and the ranger kept chasing me off,” recalls Spork. “I sold the used balls to some of the golfers, and they got to know me. Their ticket to play was supposed to get punched after the first nine holes, but sometimes it wasn’t, and they’d give me their ticket so I could play as if I had paid.

“I read about people like Babe (Didrikson) and Patty (Berg) and thought, ‘If they can do that, maybe I can do that,’” Spork says about the female golf pioneers. “I bought that putter because it looked good among the other clubs in the $1 bin. The guys all laughed at me.”

Spork actually built a small green so she could practice: “I cleared a space, dug a hole, stuck a flag in it and played by myself!” She later got some used irons from the friendly golf pro, and her uncle found a golf bag someone had thrown away.

“I wanted to compete in junior golf, and the Detroit Free Press said the PGA was giving free lessons. Whoever showed the most improvement got a $10 gift certificate. I won, and that got me my first distance club, a Louise Suggs driver. I was 12.

“Lots of girls came from families that belonged to country clubs, and they would compete in the city championships. I wanted to join the Women’s Professional Golf Association (an LPGA precursor), which was the only game in town at that time, but I was still in high school. The WPGA only lasted about three years, and then it ran out of money. There were no pro tournaments for women back then.

“Women now compete much as the men do, even if they don’t make as much money, but back then, women made their way as trainers and testers, and a lot of time was spent trying to find companies that would sponsor tournaments.”

Spork has documented her story in a book, From Green to Tee, released earlier this year.

“I call it that, because I actually started on the green, with that putter, but I made it to the tee,” she says.

The book includes stories about Spork’s rise to prominence in the game, and it also sets out the history of women’s golf and the challenges faced by the women who were trailblazers.

Spork graduated from Eastern Michigan University, where she received a teaching degree.

“We had moved back into the city when I was in high school, and the lady upstairs had a daughter in teacher’s college,” she says. “I didn’t want to go. I wanted to be a golf pro. But I went, and I studied physical education.”

She also competed in and won tournaments, and was honored not by her school’s women’s physical education department, but by the men’s.

“When I finished school, I started teaching, because my parents had sacrificed to send me to college, but my heart wasn’t really in it,” Spork says. “My mom said, ‘You should be doing what you want to do, not what we want you to do.’ I spent many years teaching part of the year and golfing whenever I could.”

Spork’s educational background served her well in establishing the LPGA Teaching Division, dedicated to working with young people, and educating golf pros about how to teach effectively.

“People may not realize that just because they play well, that doesn’t mean they can teach others,” Spork says. “When it comes to women golfers, we have to educate about smaller hands, less height, less body strength, club length—things like that. And you have to teach people how to teach; it takes five years to become a Class A teacher.”

From the time when she was young and wheedling her way onto golf courses, Spork has met many golfers who helped her find opportunities to get more time on the links—and to find her way into tournaments and jobs.

“Golfers I met could see that I was going to be a golfer,” she says. “Some of them helped me get privileges at country clubs so I could qualify for city and state tournaments. Sometimes I had to go in the back door. I did whatever I could to be able to play.”

Spork’s career includes tournaments around the world, corporate sponsorships, helping design golf courses, being a golf pro at country clubs, and teaching generations of golfers.

The second annual Shirley Spork Pro-Am Golf Tournament was held at Palm Valley Country Club this past April, with the proceeds supporting The First Tee, a youth-development organization introducing golf and its values to young people through in-school and afterschool programs.

“I was never a great player,” Spork says, with charming modesty. “When I started, there were so few women who stood up for themselves.”

However, Shirley Spork did stand up for herself—and it paid off.

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays at noon on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday at CVIndependent.com.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

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