May 7, 2009
Nancy Wren turned 68 Sunday, and just a few hours before family descended upon her Suffolk home, the phone rang.
Wren epitomized calm. Yes, she was cooking for the masses — her choice. But sure, she had time to reminisce.
Anyone who knew Wren as the mother hen of the LPGA Tour's first Hampton Roads incarnation is not surprised.
"You can print this, and I hope people don't get their feathers ruffled," said Jim Haley, an LPGA Tour advance official for 24 years, "but she's the best tournament director I ever worked with. The most efficient. They were so dedicated to the tour and the players, and she did it in such a classy way."
Shoestring budget notwithstanding, Wren and her staff created an event that golfers lauded for its homespun touches. Player-caddie softball games, Mother's Day bouquets and outdoor barbecues.
Then, poof, it was gone. After 14 years, corporate sponsorship vanished.
The obituary was published Oct. 13, 1992.
Today another sponsor is pondering the fate of its LPGA Tour event in these parts. Anheuser-Busch has staged the Michelob Ultra Open at Kingsmill since 2002, and the seventh edition begins today.
But the global recession and A-B's merger with Belgium-based InBev cloud the tournament's future.
"Kingsmill is a wonderful venue," Wren said. "I hope this isn't the last, but you certainly have to think about that."
Wren never thought that 1992 would be the final year of her tournament. Crestar Bank had bailed as co-title sponsor, but partner Farm Fresh had agreed to carry on.
In fact, after stops at Elizabeth Manor in Portsmouth, Sleepy Hole in Suffolk, and Greenbrier Country Club in Chesapeake, plans were afoot to move the event to Kiln Creek.
So confident was Wren in the tournament's security that she retired as its director, handing over the reins to longtime assistant Judy Bray. But in the midst of an economic decline in the summer of '92 — sound familiar? — Farm Fresh's New York bankers told the grocery chain to drop its sponsorship.
Bray and her staff courted replacements, but deadlines beckoned. Come October, little more than six months before the tournament's traditional Mother's Day date, they abandoned their search.
"I had no clue that was going to happen," Wren said. "I would have never retired had I known that was possible. Not that I could have done anything about it, but I never would have left (Judy) with that."
Unlike the Michelob, the Crestar never offered lucrative prize money or purchased national cable television time. Hall of Famer Amy Alcott earned $15,000 for winning the first edition in 1979 at Elizabeth Manor; Jennifer Wyatt cashed $63,750 for her 1992 victory at Greenbrier.
This week's first-place check is $330,000.
Still, many name players were loyal to the tournament. More precisely, to Wren.
"She was a fantastic tournament director," Hall of Famer Beth Daniel said, "very engaging with the players, one of the first tournament directors that made an effort to know the players and help them out herself."
Alcott and Juli Inkster won the event twice each, Inkster once in a marquee-worthy playoff with Nancy Lopez, Betsy King and Rosie Jones.
Kathy Whitworth, the LPGA's career victory leader with 88, won for the final time at Sleepy Hole. Dottie Pepper, now an excellent television analyst, prevailed at Greenbrier, as did three-time U.S. Women's Open champion Hollis Stacy.
"We tried to spoil them," Wren said. "It was our maternal instincts coming out. They were like our daughters, and the tournament was like entertaining our daughters for a week. But we also felt like we were promoting professional women, and being a women's group, that appealed to us, too."
The women's group was the Portsmouth Service League, and Wren served on its fund-raising committee. Looking for a project idea in 1977, she happened to be in Florida with her husband, Ken, attending a mixed-team event featuring two promising young players: Lopez and Curtis Strange.
During play, Wren heard someone remark that professional golf raised more money for charity than other sports combined. Upon returning home, she immediately called Elizabeth Manor pro Butch Liebler.
Wren envisioned a men's tournament, but PGA Tour officials discouraged her and suggested the LPGA. Thanks to Lopez's unrivaled rookie season — nine victories, including five straight — in 1978, Wren found fertile marketing and enlisted United Virginia Bank (later Crestar) as title sponsor.
Wren estimates the tournament generated more than $500,000 for charities over the years.
"Oh my gosh," she said. "I wouldn't take anything for those 15 years. I had no clue the journey I was beginning."
Today, Wren volunteers as a fund-raiser for area foundations and dotes on her six grandchildren, ages 4-13. She has attended some of the LPGA events at Kingsmill, mostly to connect with folks such as Inkster, Daniel and Haley.
But Wren never was a golfer or golf expert. Her specialties were sales and hospitality.
"It made us feel like we were part of the family," Daniel said.
But then the family split.
"Once it was over, it was over," Wren said of her tournament. "I still enjoy watching them on television, but I certainly don't follow it closely."
Yet she's keenly aware that this may be last call at Kingsmill.
"I would be very sad," Wren said. "But who knows? Maybe someone else would step up to the plate, or tee."
David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at email@example.com. For more from Teel read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime.