SUPERSTITION MOUNTAIN, Ariz. — The LPGA is back in Arizona. It’s also back at one of its most popular stops.
Perhaps it’s fitting that the golf club hosting the event is owned by a woman, and the company hired to run concessions during the tournament is also woman-owned.
All that wasn’t done by design but it does speak to a convergence of events that puts women at the forefront of the LPGA’s first full-field event on the 2023 schedule.
The Drive On Championship will be held at Superstition Mountain Golf Club, March 23-26. It’s the fourth event of the season but the first three were limited field tournaments.
Top-ranked Lydia Ko and Minjee Lee aren’t in the field but the best of the rest are going to play, as Nos. 2, 3 and 4 – Nelly Korda, Jin Young Ko and Atthaya Thitikul – are set to tee it up, as are Lexi Thompson, Brooke Henderson, Lilia Vu, Danielle Kang and Jennifer Kupcho.
“It’s going to be a star-studded field,” said Scott Wood, the 2023 tournament director. Six of the top 10 and 14 of the top 20-ranked golfers in the world are in the field of 144.
Old stomping grounds
Arizona golf fans will remember Superstition Mountain.
It hosted the Safeway International for five years, from 2004 to 2008. Those events are remembered for the three World Golf Hall of Famers who won there: Annika Sorenstam in 2004 and 2005; Juli Inkster in 2006; Lorena Ochoa in 2007 and 2008.
The location was a hit for fans, as well, with more than 150,000 spectators roaming the galleries those weeks.
The LPGA returned to the Grand Canyon State with the Founders Cup in 2011. That event was last staged in Arizona in 2019 when Jin Young Ko won her first tournament in the U.S. at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup at Wildfire Golf Club. The 2020 event was canceled by the COVID pandemic and then the tournament was moved out of the state.
In the ensuing years, Susan Hladky, owner of Superstition Mountain, and her general manager Mark Gurnow started working behind the scenes to bring professional golf back to their corner of the world.
One of their first efforts was to try to attract the KPMG Women’s PGA. They aimed high right off the bat, swinging for the fences to land a major. While that didn’t pan out, it did help get them in front of some of the movers and shakers in the tournament world.
“That never quite came to fruition but it got our juices flowing, and we were saying ‘How are we going to do this?’” said Gurnow, who had several talks with the LPGA.
Then, suddenly, his phone rang.
“I guess it was last fall, they said ‘Might you be interested?’” he said. Indeed they were, even though they had to be ready a mere six months later.
Not even golfers
Neither Hladky nor her husband played golf but the opportunity to purchase Superstition Mountain was too good to pass up in late 2009. Lyle Anderson had developed the site with Jack Nicklaus but fell on hard times and had to let the club with two 18-hole layouts go as the economy hit the skids.
Less than two years later, James, a Wyoming oilman, died when his helicopter crashed. Susan was suddenly the sole owner and operator of the golf club.
Susan Hladky at Superstition Mountain Golf and Country Club. (Photo: Joel Angel Juarez/The Arizona Republic-USA TODAY NETWORK)
She has a strong team behind her, starting with Gurnow, who’s been at the club for almost 10 years and was with Troon for seven years before that. Superstition Mountain’s director of agronomy, Scott Krout, has been with the club since it opened in 1999. He still has tournament notes from those Safeway events 15 years ago.
It’s believe Hladky is the only woman to own a course on the LPGA schedule, but she’s quick to not make a big deal about that.
“Maybe not a pioneer,” she said of her status. “But it’s exciting to think that maybe it’s influential to women’s golf.”
Her commitment to women’s game goes beyond hosting an LPGA event. Hladky has also opened her course to eight players who have membership:
Superstition Mountain has also hosted amateur and college events, including an upcoming NCAA regional:
Arizona Women’s Divisional Stroke Play
U.S. Women’s Open qualifying (twice)
University of Kansas college event
University of Denver college event
Southwest Section Pro-Lady Championship (twice)
NCAA Women’s regional (2025)
“When I grew up, it was more of a man’s sport, women got a day a week or whatever,” Hladky said. Her efforts now are opening doors for so many.
“We’re definitely making a concerted effort across the tour to work with more women-owned or diversity-owned companies,” Wood said. “When we bring a tour somewhere there’s a significant economic boost to that town so if we can help support business owners that look like our players, and are as successful as our players, that’s a win for all of us.”
Superstition Mountain’s membership is well north of 400. Last November, the members raised $80,000 for Sunshine Acres, a local charity that provides for homeless children. The membership is taking to the LPGA event, too, with many of them making up the volunteer crew of about 400 people.
One-year deal for now
The Drive On Championship is owned and operated by the LPGA and has been held in other states previously. The tournament for now is only slated for 2023 but if all goes well, who knows?
“We hope this goes well and the event returns in 2024,” said Hladky.
“Success for us is to bring the tour back to the fans of Phoenix. Have great crowds, great weather, competitive rounds,” said Wood. “We’ll crown a champion next Sunday and take a look at things and see how we can improve next time and see where the ’24 schedule develops.”