Reading The Greens

Gary Larrabee

Allow me to take you back 40 years to recall the most passionate golf-centric love affair I ever witnessed hereabouts.

You might remember it: that relationship between the North Shore golf community and the Boston Five LPGA Classic, staged at Ferncroft Country Club from 1980 through 1990. 

It was quite a time, starting with the official announcement made on a snowy Friday in December 1979 at Boston Five Cents Savings Bank headquarters in downtown Boston. Jan Stephenson, the Australian LPGA star, was there; because of that, the event was packed with media types.

It was probably the last place that Stephenson, the tour’s co-headliner in those days along with Nancy Lopez, cared to be on that occasion. But she flew into town on that snowy morning, did her PR thing impressively (much to the approval of Boston Five CEO Bob Spiller) and flew back to her Florida abode that evening.

Reading The Greens: Recalling the Boston Five Classic, 40 years later 

Reading The Greens golf columnist Gary Larrabee

Thus began a decade of big-time professional golf in our midst, with many of the 11 championships televised nationally on the relatively new (opened in 1969) Rees Jones-designed course spread out off Route 95 in Middleton, Danvers and Topsfield.

The Boston Five Classic was an idea that had been brewing for several years between Spiller and fellow Winchester Country Club member and Boston PR honcho Al Longo, a resident of Ferncroft Tower. Now it had become a reality.

During that 1980-90 time frame, Ferncroft hosted the world’s finest women golfers, brought millions of dollars of economic impact to the region, and provided countless memories to the thousands of galleryites and volunteers who attended annually.

The Boston Five Classic was the biggest professional sports event to take place on the North Shore — until the 1984 U.S. Women’s Open and 2001 and 2017 U.S. Senior Opens came to Salem Country Club.

Hundreds of locals took Boston Five Classic Week off to either work, volunteer or watch the tournament. There were two days of practice rounds, the Wednesday charity-centered Pro-Am, and four days of official competition.

“We had a great time all those years,” Spiller said to this writer in 2000. “They’d held all those wonderful LPGA and PGA Tour events at Pleasant Valley outside Worcester, but ours was an opportunity for a special tournament much closer to Boston — and a really big deal for the North Shore.”

The first Boston Five was held in June. It wasn't ideal timing summer-wise, but it turned into a successful week in all respects: great weather, adequate on-site parking, good-sized galleries (15,000+ on Sunday for the final round) and a popular first-time winner in Dale Lundquist.

“We couldn’t have asked for a better first year,” Spiller, who died in 2009, noted.

The marvelous weather never let up. In 11 years spanning 44 rounds of championship golf, the course got rained on for a grand total of 15 minutes.

I covered all 11 tournaments for The Salem News and can pinpoint only one negative: the aforementioned Lopez never played.

We thought we might see her in 1984 since, in a quirk in the LPGA/USGA scheduling, the Boston Five was slated for the week immediately prior to the ’84 Women’s Open at Salem in mid-July. But Lopez did not do the “Boston back-to-backer,” as we dubbed the successive weeks’ action.

In the 11 years of the Boston Five Classic, every other big-name LPGA competitor played Ferncroft at least once, including 'Big Momma', the incomparable Joanne Gunderdson Carner. But no Lopez.

The only other disappointment from the 11-year run was that New England favorites Pat Bradley and Jane Blalock never reached the winner’s circle. The pair were the galleries’ choice every year, and Bradley emerged during the 1980s as one of the LPGA Tour’s top stars, but she could never put four strong rounds together. More importantly, though, Bradley and Blalock supported the event enthusiastically.

The tournament identified some fine champions. Future LPGA Hall of Famer Donna Caponi emerged victorious in 1981, matching Lundquist’s 12-under-par 276 score in 1981. Another future LPGA Hall of Famer — and one of the smallest players on Tour — Sandra Palmer, at a mere 100 pounds, triumphed in 1982 (281), followed by former U.S. Amateur champ Patti Rizzo (277) in 1983.

Next as champion came Laurie Rinker in 1984 (286, the highest winning score at Ferncroft), followed by Judy Dickinson (280) in ’85.

Jane Geddes became the Boston Five’s only back-to-back champion in 1986 (277) and 1987 (281), followed by low-key star Colleen Walker (274 ) in 1988 and Hall of Famer-to-be Amy Alcott in 1989 (a record-low 272 tabulation).

The final Ferncroft victor was Barb Mucha (279), who became the lone Boston Five champ to celebrate her victory by jumping in the pond fronting the 18th green, a la the Dinah Shore Nabisco Championship tradition.

Following Mucha’s win, developer Thomas Flatley, who had recently purchased Ferncroft and the adjacent hotel atop the Ferncroft Road hill, demanded a huge increase in the course fee for use by the Boston Five and the LPGA for the next year’s tournament. Spiller said no thanks. Concord-based Welch’s acquired the rights to the tournament and moved the venue to Blue Hill CC in anton.

The love affair was over, but the memories remain strong four decades later.

“We gave the North Shore and Greater Boston a great time for 11 years,” Longo, who died in 2014, at age 94, remarked years ago in reflection. “The LPGA ladies were the best in every way: friendly, giving, accommodating, and terrific golfers.”

Longo ran the media tent all those years, assisted by his wife Helen.

We miss everything about the Boston Five Classic. But we'll always have the memories to cherish.

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We mourn the passing of James Morse III ... Stunning that the United States Golf Association has decided to cancel all USGA championships in 2020 because of the Covid-19 Pandemic — except for the men’s and women’s Opens and Amateurs ...The men’s Open, postponed to September 17-20 at Winged Foot, will be the latest a U.S. Open has been conducted since 1913, when unknown amateur Francis Ouimet shocked the golf world by winning the Open across the street from his home at The Country Club in Brookline in an 18-hole rain-soaked playoff over the game’s giants, Englishmen Harry Vardon and Ted Ray.

The first Mass Golf championship remains the men’s Amateur at Kittansett July 13-17, women’s Amateur set for Essex August 11-14.

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Gary Larrabee, who writes 'Reading The Greens' each week during the golf season for The Salem News, has covered golf on the North Shore and beyond for the last 50 years.

BOSTON FIVE CLASSIC CHAMPIONS

Year Winner

1980 Dale Lundquist

1981 Donna Caponi

1982 Sandra Palmer

1983 Patti Rizzo

1984 Laurie Rinker

1985 Judy Dickinson

1986 Jane Geddes

1987 Jane Geddes

1988 Colleen Walker

1989 Amy Alcott

1990 Barb Mucha

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