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Sugar Grove to welcome LPGA’s new Crown jewel

Team USA walks arm in arm across the 18th green after winning the 2009 Solheim Cup at Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove.
Team USA walks arm in arm across the 18th green after winning the 2009 Solheim Cup at Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove.

Rich Harvest Farms owner Jerry Rich often ventures onto his golf course without his clubs, absorbing the solace of a private playground he developed from Sugar Grove soil.

There were far more visitors during the summer of 2009 than Rich typically is accustomed, but he still found time and space to think.

Rich began outlining the premise for the LPGA’s new International Crown match-play event when the Solheim Cup descended on the course nearly four years ago. On Thursday, he sat in a ballroom at the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando, Fla., as LPGA officials announced his partial brainchild would be coming to Rich Harvest Farms in 2016.

A biennial event composed of 32 players from eight countries – far more expansive than the Solheim’s United States-against-Europe format and indicative of the LPGA’s global reach – the International Crown will debut at Caves Valley outside Baltimore in July 2014. Rich Harvest will host two years later, and is a candidate to serve as the permanent Crown venue after that.

“I knew in SSRq09 that the LPGA had a wonderful product,” Rich told the Chronicle on Thursday. “But when the best players in the world aren’t from America, you know, you’ve got to start doing some changing on how you market the product.”

In 2012, seven of the LPGA’s top 10 money-winners were of Asian descent. Nine countries are represented in the current Rolex World Rankings top 20.

World No. 1 Yani Tseng, a 24-year-old from Taiwan, praised the opportunity to bring more nationalism into the sport at a Thursday news conference in Orlando.

“I always feel like I play for my country but I never really play for my country,” she told reporters.

Rich worked with LPGA officials, including commissioner Mike Whan, to develop the Crown, which will complement the Solheim Cup. Fans, media and even some players long have asked about the absence of a setting that allows the best women’s golfers worldwide to compete in a team format.

Per a PowerPoint presentation shown at the news conference, the Crown is the “ultimate world team golf pressure cooker to produce for your homeland.”

“The tournament’s going to be huge,” Rich said, “We raised the bar for the Solheim Cup, so we’re going to exceed that when this gets there in ’16.”

About 1,600 volunteers were part of the effort when the Solheim Cup drew about 120,000 fans to Sugar Grove over four days. Rich Harvest Farms – the home course of the men’s and women’s teams at Rich’s alma mater, Northern Illinois – since has hosted a handful of NCAA postseason tournaments and top junior events.

Upcoming tournaments include a 2014 NCAA men’s regional and The Western Golf Association’s 2015 Western Amateur and 2017 Centennial Western Junior.

Rich also is planning a special 2014 event for high school and junior girls players from five states that would have conflicted with the inaugural Crown. “Growing the game” has been his platform for some time, long before Rich Harvest Farms’ beginnings as three personal holes on Rich’s property.

The LPGA is building its own momentum, gradually adding tournaments, corporate sponsors and airtime with its television partner, The Golf Channel, in the past few years.

Now, here comes the Crown and another international golf event in Kane County at a to-be-determined summer date in 2016.

“Let’s let countries be countries,” Whan told reporters. “Let’s introduce something to the world of golf that’s going to really take advantage of the women’s game.”

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