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End of McDonald's sponsorship for LPGA tourney

HAVRE DE GRACE, Md. - Starting today, as they have for almost three decades, Herb Lotman and Frank Quinn will spend their days crisscrossing the fairways and rough of Bulle Rock in their carts, doing whatever they can to help the group they fondly call "The Kids."

HAVRE DE GRACE, Md. - Starting today, as they have for almost three decades, Herb Lotman and Frank Quinn will spend their days crisscrossing the fairways and rough of Bulle Rock in their carts, doing whatever they can to help the group they fondly call "The Kids."

What Lotman and Quinn founded as the LPGA McDonald's Classic starting in 1981 at White Manor Country Club in Malvern became the gold standard on any pro golf tour for an annual tournament that raised money for charity.

It went through a few name changes and became a major, the McDonald's LPGA Championship, in 1994. But through all its incarnations, the event under the direction of Lotman and Quinn netted more than $47 million over the last 28 years for Ronald McDonald House Charities.

This week's tournament, however, will be the last under the McDonald's sponsorship. The event became a victim of a struggling economy that saw a rise in costs and reduced sponsorship combining to produce a sizable cutback on what was given to the beneficiary.

Realizing there was no reversing a downward trend that began with their final seasons at DuPont Country Club in Wilmington and continued at Bulle Rock in Havre de Grace, Md., beginning in 2005, Lotman and Quinn notified LPGA commissioner Carolyn Bivens that they wanted to end their involvement with the second-oldest major on the women's tour after 2009.

"The amount of sponsorships was being reduced substantially," said Lotman, 76, of Haverford, chairman of Keystone Foods, a major McDonald's supplier. "I felt this was not going to get any better and would probably get worse.

"Remember, this was still the good times. The cost of putting on the tournament superseded the amount of money we could give to charity, and it didn't make sense for an event that's here strictly to raise money to continue."

Lotman said this year's charitable contribution "probably won't be much."

Initially, last year's announcement of the transfer was considered a good move for the LPGA, to own and control the championship for its players after 23 years of having a title sponsor's name attached to it. Bivens had announced a goal of a $3 million purse - $1 million more than what it is this year.

Again, however, the economy has provided obstacles to the LPGA plan. The tour said negotiations were under way with venues and corporate sponsors for the 2010 event, but no announcement is expected until November, when the tour announces the next year's schedule.

"We're on two parallel paths, speaking with venues that are very interested and the same thing with sponsors," LPGA chief communications officer David Higdon said. "We're pretty confident we will have something in place ready to go by the end of the year."

For Lotman, Quinn, and other tournament officials, most of whom have been around since the beginning, it has been a dramatic financial reversal. The tournament grew rapidly in six years at White Manor, quickly advancing to the top of the LPGA Tour in purse money offered, then regularly topped the $2 million mark annually for charity after it moved to DuPont.

"We got up to $2.8 million one year, higher than any event on the men's tour gave to charity that year," said Quinn, 64, of Lawrenceville, N.J., owner-operator of six McDonald's franchises in Mercer and Atlantic Counties. "For a few years, we were the top charity sporting event there was - golf, tennis, any of the above."

Lotman said DuPont was solidly behind the tournament for much of its 18-year run in Wilmington. The pro-am, contested on two courses during the week of the event, was getting more than $10,000 each for some spots, and DuPont provided about 100 players. Ninety percent of the sponsors were McDonald's suppliers, he said.

"They set the bar for a lot of other events," said Dottie Pepper, a commentator for NBC and Golf Channel who competed in the tournament during her playing career. "They leveraged their ties within McDonald's and the food industry to raise money. They were two guys that put a stamp on the way to run a successful charity championship."

However, times started getting tough. DuPont reduced its involvement in the pro-am, and sponsorship in the Wilmington area was drying up. The golf course was at the center of increasing complaints by players.

Lotman and Quinn felt the need to move to Maryland to tap into new sources of revenue and renew player enthusiasm at Bulle Rock, a well-regarded high-end public course designed by Pete Dye, where one of the owners was a McDonald's supplier.

"The management changed at DuPont and a couple of the other large local folks stopped supporting us," Quinn said. "So we, in effect, had to take a look at what other options we had. When you think about it, had the support continued, we'd have been there [in Wilmington] forever."

Delaware officials protested what they called hasty action to move the tournament before they could submit a counterproposal. Lotman, however, insisted that state and DuPont officials were kept informed of their plans.

While players loved Bulle Rock - "I think it goes back to the traditions of great golf courses," Pepper said - the sponsors did not come out in droves.

The week will have a melancholy feel, but that doesn't detract from the charitable funds and the keen on-course competition over the years.

Twenty-year-old Se Ri Pak, an unknown rookie from South Korea, won the championship in 1998 and set off a golf frenzy among young girls in her country that has seen participation by Korean women on the tour rise to more than 40 players this year.

Hall of Famers Juli Inkster and Karrie Webb completed their career Grand Slams at the LPGA Championship, and Annika Sorenstam won three consecutive years at two sites - DuPont and Bulle Rock.

"To see it come to an end is sad," said tournament executive director Alice Miller, who won the 1985 McDonald's championship with four consecutive 68s. "But there's a lot to celebrate. The staff feels a lot of pride. Being a part of it all, the friends that we've made, has been very positive for us."

If You Go

The McDonald's LPGA Championship runs today through Sunday at Bulle Rock Golf Course, off Exit 89 of I-95, in Havre de Grace, Md.

Tickets: Admission is $22 today and tomorrow and $25 Saturday and Sunday. However, the tournament is offering the following offers for free tickets:

Today - Senior Day, everyone 50 and older admitted free.

Tomorrow - Food Bank Day, free admission to anyone bringing four non-perishable, unbreakable food items.

Saturday - Military Appreciation Day, free admission to all active and retired members of the military, and veterans.

Every day - Free admission to spectators ages 16 and under accompanied by a ticketed adult.

Schedule: Play begins today and tomorrow at 7:15 a.m. and continues until 6:30 p.m. Play starts at around 8:30 a.m. Saturday and Sunday and finishes about 7 p.m.

Parking: There is no charge and a complimentary shuttle will be provided to the course.

Parking is available today, tomorrow and Sunday at Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen, Md., off Exit 85 of I-95.

On Saturday, parking is at the Water's Edge Corporate Campus in Belcamp, Md., off Exit 80 of I-95.

There is no parking at the golf course.

Web site:

- Joe Juliano