LPGA Tour plays for free in US opener

PHOENIX (AP) - The LPGA Tour found a way to return to the Valley of the Sun and add another U.S. event. The catch, the players aren't getting paid.

"This is a completely unique event," Commissioner Michael Whan said.

The LPGA Founders Cup, set to open Friday at JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort & Spa's Wildfire Golf Club, will donate $1 million to charity - half to The LPGA Foundation and its LPGA-USGA Girls Golf program and half to the top-10 finishers' designated charities. The $1 million will count on the season money list.

"I think it's a very positive vibe from all the people that are following around," 14-time tour winner Cristie Kerr said Thursday. "We've had a lot of 'Thank yous."'

The fifth-ranked Kerr is playing for her own Birdies For Breast Cancer foundation and the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center. On Saturday night at Desert Ridge, she'll receive the Muhammad Ali Athlete of the Year award.

"It's quite an honor," Kerr said. "I get to sit with Halle Berry and The Champ."

The RR Donnelley-sponsored tournament is the tour's first since Karrie Webb won in Singapore on Feb. 27. After stops the next two weeks in Southern California for the Kia Classic and Kraft Nabisco, the tour will be off three straight weeks and five of six.

"It's a little bit more challenging because I'm the kind of player that likes to play a lot," Kerr said. "I like to play in competition to feel sharp. It's hard for me to practice without having something to practice for."

Top-ranked Yani Tseng, the winner of the season-opening LPGA Thailand and three other worldwide events this year, also is in the field along with Webb, Jiyai Shin, Paula Creamer, Morgan Pressel, Hall of Famer Juli Inkster and teen star Jessica Korda.

Tseng, from Taiwan, is playing for UNICEF's Tap Project and Japan relief effort.

"It's not about money", Tseng said. "It's my honor to play this tournament."

RR Donnelley also will give UNICEF's Japan relief program $100 for every birdie and $500 for each eagle on the final four holes.

The tournament honors the 13 players who founded the tour in 1950. As part of the event, Hall of Famers Nancy Lopez, Betsy King and Patty Sheehan will play an exhibition round Friday morning on the tournament course.

"We're pretty lucky to be where we're at," Webb said. "At times, it's tough. but we need to dig our heels in like they did 60 years ago."

She is friends with founder Louise Suggs.

"I actually have a couple of great saved voicemail messages," Webb said. "I nearly erased them the other day and I almost started crying."

Originally, the tour planned to donate $700,000, with $200,000 going to organizations designated by the top-five finishers. The players then persuaded the tour to bump that to $500,000 for the top-10 finishers' charities. The winner's charity will get $200,000 and second place is worth $100,000.

"I've always thought the concept of this tournament was great," said Webb, playing for the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation. "Obviously, now if I play well this week, I'm also able to give back to a charity that I've been involved with for a long time."

Webb won the tour's last Phoenix event in 2009 at Papago. The 10th-ranked Australian star also won in 1999 at Moon Valley.

"I've always enjoyed playing Phoenix," Webb said. "It's a beautiful time of the year to be out here. It's generally not too cold and just a perfect temperature."

DIVOTS: The final nine holes of each of the resort's two 18-hole courses, designed by Arnold Palmer and Nick Faldo, will be used in the tournament. The Palmer Course will serve as the front nine and the Faldo Course the back nine. ... Japan's Haru Nomura had a 4-under 68 on Tuesday to qualify. Amelia Lewis took the other available spot, shooting a 72 and beating Adrienne White with a par on the fourth hole of a playoff.


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