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Champions' tourney scores par for LPGA

Charlie Mechem has waited four years for this chance.

As usual, he was smiling Tuesday when he walked past the practice range and called out to his players. What he said wasn't so usual.

"Hey, Champ! And hey, Champ, how are you?" said Mechem, the commissioner of the Ladies Professional Golf Association, as he greeted Danielle Ammaccapane and Chris Tschetter.

"I just think it's great that I can call everybody "Champ' here," Mechem said, chuckling. His satisfaction isn't for himself, of course, but for his "gals," as only he can say.

Ammaccapane and Tschetter are just two of 40 golfers playing in this week's inaugural Chrysler-Plymouth Tournament of Champions _ featuring LPGA tournament winners of the past two years, plus active Hall of Fame members _ held at Grand Cypress Resort in Orlando.

Since becoming commissioner in 1990, Mechem has made this tournament a priority in his plans to boost the LPGA toward prominence, if not equity with the PGA Tour.

"I knew there were three or four events the LPGA needed that the men's tour had. Classics, like the British Open, the Bing Crosby and the Tournament of Champions," Mechem said.

This year, the LPGA has added the Women's British Open and the Tournament of Champions, in addition to three new tournaments. But this 72-hole tournament, which starts today and runs through Saturday, is by far the highlight of the additions, not to mention the biggest purse ($700,000) of the five.

"Our tour really deserves a tournament like this, with good, top-quality players," said Hall of Famer Nancy Lopez. "We needed to have this for a long time."

It's not just the caliber of the players that makes this tournament prestigious, Lopez and Mechem say. It's the caliber of the course.

Jack Nicklaus designed the North-South course at Grand Cypress, featuring dunes, pot bunkers, long fairways, lakes and quick greens. Add a stiff breeze, and the golf should be challenging, even for champions.

"I think you're going to see the cream come to the top," Lopez said. "I think in years past, a lot of the golf courses were a little too short and it became a putting contest. This course will delineate the real pros. It calls for a lot of shot making and course management. There are really quick greens compared with what we usually play, and it gets your stroke going."

Mechem thinks it's about time the LPGA is afforded such luxuries as a nationally renowned course. "This is where the men's tour was 20 years ago, in terms of facilities," he said. "The men play these great courses every week, and the women don't. For them, it's a real treat to play here."

The LPGA Tourmanent of Champions, by design and also by time constraints, is different from the men's version _ the Mercedes Championship. The PGA Tour's tournament kicks off the season, but when Mechem completed plans 10 months ago, this third week in the LPGA season was the only open television date. NBC also could broadcast the final round only on Saturday, so the tournament organizers moved it up and put a Pro-Am on Sunday.

Next year, Mechem says, this tournament will begin the tour season and follow the more conventional four-day schedule, starting on Thursday.

"With the depth of talent on our tour right now, the great players may not necessarily win in one year," Mechem said. "This way we can pull in more than just the occasional winner. And with the Hall of Fame players, everybody knows them. They're a great draw."

Golf facts

What: 1994 Chrysler-Plymouth Tournament of Champions.

When: Today through Saturday.

Where: Grand Cypress Resort (North-South Course), Orlando.

Who: Winners of all official LPGA Tour tournaments in 1992, 1993 and the first two tournaments of 1994, plus active LPGA Hall of Fame players. Field includes Nancy Lopez, Pat Bradley, Patty Sheehan, Dottie Mochrie and Betsy King.

Purse: $700,000 total; $115,000 winner.

TV: Ch. 8 (Saturday), Prime Network (Thursday-Friday).

Course Description: Jack Nicklaus designed both 18-hole courses at Cypress Creek ("New Course" is the other), plus a nine-hole course. The North-South is lined with dunes, trees and pot bunkers and features quick, undulating greens.

Length: 6,424 yards.

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