At age 3, the Thornberry Creek LPGA Classic is young enough to be the Greater Milwaukee Open's daughter and, if there really was a lineage there, the struggles of the annual LPGA Tour stop near Green Bay to gain traction on a variety of golf schedules could be chalked up as simply the apple not falling far from the tree.
Indeed, much like the venerable GMO — now long retired from the PGA Tour schedule after a 42-year run that culminated in 2009 — the Thornberry Creek event continues to suffer from the same respect complex among LPGA Tour golfers that seemed to follow the Milwaukee event over the years as it moved from North Shore Country Club in Mequon to Tripoli Country Club in Milwaukee to Tuckaway Country Club in Franklin to Brown Deer Park Golf Course in Milwaukee.
The golf was good. The spectator support, based on gate estimates from the tournament organizers, was seemingly fine. But the field always seemed to lack a bona fide drawing card unless Jack Nicklaus or Tom Watson was doing GMO ambassador Andy North of Madison a favor; Tiger Woods was turning professional; young, in-state stars such as Steve Stricker or Jerry Kelly of Madison were in the hunt — or if it was that one unforgettable GMO 30 years ago this summer when Greg Norman stormed into town and won it.
Likewise, the Thornberry marquee has been short-circuited by an assortment of obstacles, including one or two that, sadly, have been self-inflicted.
Who knew when the tournament debuted two years ago that it would become so difficult for many of its stars — especially those from the United States such as Paula Creamer, Morgan Pressel and Angela Stanford or, more recently, Stacy Lewis, Michelle Wie and Cristie Kerr — to shine brightly on what has become a truly international stage with emerging talent from all parts of the globe rising to the top seemingly every week? Or that building interest in a new event like Thornberry Creek would be so difficult now that so many of its enduring stars from the turn of the century — such as Annika Sorenstam, Lorena Ochoa or Se Ri Pak, who won the 1998 U.S. Women's Open just down the road in Kohler — have long since retired from the weekly rigors of a life spent on the road?
The 2019 field couldn't be more indicative of the struggles this event has fought despite offering two million ($$) reasons to come to Green Bay.
Four of the top 10 golfers on the current Race to CME Globe standings are in the field, led by recent U.S. Women's Open champion Jeongeun Lee6. Unfortunately for Wisconsin golf fans, two of the most recognizable faces on that list or the LPGA Tour, in general — Canadian Brooke Henderson, who made the trip to Green Bay each of the last two years, and Lexi Thompson, who has yet to attend — are not coming to the state this week.
At last check of the final field on LPGA.com, defending AIG British Open Champion Georgia Hall is in the Thornberry Creek field as are former major championship winners Na Yeon Choi, Ariya Jutanugarn, Shanshan Feng, Eun-Hee Ji, Hyo Joo Kim, Brittany Lang, Anna Nordqvist, and Sung Hyun Park. However, despite tying for seventh at Thornberry Creek a year go, Jin Young Ko — winner of the year's first major in April when she captured the ANA Inspiration in Palm Springs — is not coming back in 2019.
Of course, tournament organizers haven't done themselves any favors in the credibility or marketing departments with a few puzzling decisions they have made, particularly when it comes to sponsor's exemptions and the use of them on legitimate rising stars from Wisconsin.
A year ago, they burned an exemption on 13-year-old amateur Alexa Pano before the teen prodigy had really assembled a resume worthy of a spot in an LPGA Tour event. Sure enough, she shot 75-72 and missed the cut by seven shots but, over the next 10 months, showed why those running the Thornberry Creek event thought so highly of her — finishing second at the U.S. Junior Girls Championship, reaching the match-play portion of the U.S. Women's Amateur and, this spring, qualifying for the U.S. Women's Open — and has earned a return appearance in 2019.
This year, in its ongoing effort to celebrate the Oneida Nation as is its right as the tournament sponsor, organizers first awarded a spot in the Monday qualifier and then — when an additional exemption suddenly became available over the weekend — into the actual tournament for 2016 Green Bay Southwest graduate Presley Cornelius, a local amateur golfer and an Oneida Tribal member.
There is no record of Cornelius having played in any competitive golf in Wisconsin since she shot 104 in a WIAA regional in 2015. Her USGA handicap record on the Wisconsin State Golf Association website suggests that, after struggling to break 90 as recently as last fall, Cornelius has seen a significant improvement in her game as witness to the six scores of 76 or better that she has posted this spring with a low of 71.
"This isn't a mistake," Tom Benbow, public relations and communications manager for IMG, which stages the Thornberry Creek event for the LPGA, assured me via email after I pointed out the unusual turnaround in Cornelius' scores in less than a year. "She has worked very hard on her game over the past year to get to where she is and the Oneida Nation supports her efforts."
Christina Lance, senior manager for Tour media for the LPGA, added: "Players who receive a sponsor invitation are selected solely by the sponsor. The LPGA requires that amateurs must have a 2.0 Handicap, which Presley has and is verified."
The tournament has not spent a sponsor's exemption on a Wisconsin golfer since awarding one to Osceola's Casey Danielson for the inaugural event in 2016, less than a month after Danielson had graduated college from Stanford. She missed the cut that year, but has since won the 2018 Ladies European Tour Qualifying School and shown great promise on the Symetra Tour, the LPGA's developmental circuit, yet has not returned to the Green Bay event.
At the same time, Wisconsin has not enjoyed a prominence on LPGA Tour leaderboards since Madison's Sherri Steinhauer and Sheboygan's Martha Nause retired to pickleball and the Legends Tour, respectively, long ago.
Fortunately for fans and organizers alike, there has always been someone or something to deem the Thornberry Creek event an unqualified success.
In 2017, it was the dynamic personality of inaugural winner Katherine Kirk, an Australian who shot 68-63-65-70 to win by one that year and has proven to be a wonderful ambassador for the event ever since. In 2018, it was the record-setting performance of winner Sei Young Kim, who shattered all kinds of LPGA scoring records with her 31-under-par 257 total on the strength of rounds of 63-65-64-65 that gave her a nine-stroke victory.
This year, that someone could be rookie Jennifer Kupcho.
The recent Wake Forest University graduate became the darling of American golf in April when she out-dueled Spain's Maria Fassi to win the inaugural Augusta National Women's Amateur thanks to a 5-under 67 on the final day at Augusta National. She earned LPGA Tour status last fall, but deferred it until after her senior season at Wake Forest and has made three of four cuts since turning professional at the U.S. Women's Open with a tie for 23rd her best finish.
The future of the tournament, in the last of a three-year deal with the LPGA Tour, will be one of the leading storylines as the week plays out at Thornberry Creek in Oneida. But it wouldn't hurt if one of the future stars of the LPGA Tour became another headliner as the fireworks return Green Bay this Fourth of July weekend.