Premium practice balls, ball tracking technology, VR, Rolls-Royces and more: How Carlton Woods wowed LPGA players at the Chevron Championship

THE WOODLANDS, Texas — As the sun magnificently lit up The Club at Carlton Woods for Saturday’s third round of the LPGA’s Chevron Championship, adding a hue of green that previously hadn’t been seen by TV audiences, the biggest concern tournament organizers faced was an overload of patrons waiting for the shuttle bus at a nearby park-and-ride.

Too many fans. That was the biggest takeaway after the first few rounds of play after the event moved from sacred ground in California to its new Texas home.

Steve Salzman, the general manager and chief operating officer of the club, knew many were sensitive and sentimental about the move away from Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage after 51 years. So he knew to give players a reason to keep circling the date, tournament organizers would need to dig deep into a bag of Texas hospitality.

The reaction was overwhelmingly positive. Stipends of $5,000 were added for players who missed the cut, marking the first time in the tournament’s history that was offered. Players received courtesy cars for the week, with returning champs rolling around town in Bentleys and Rolls-Royces.

Patty Tavatanakit picks up her ball after finishing the 18th hole during the second round of the 2023 Chevron Championship. (Photo: Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports)

And those are just some of the perks the new partnership between Carlton Woods and Chevron has cooked up. LPGA players often aren’t given an option when it comes to practice balls, meaning they often have a different feel on the range. Salzman and his staff reached out to ball manufacturers and while some did provide extra balls for the range, a few did not.

“That didn’t sit really well with us,” he said. “So we contacted all the ball manufacturers to get balls. Most of the big ones came through, but there were a few that didn’t, so we dug into our own stock and made sure that was the case, so that they can practice with the balls that they play with. And I think that’s the first time that’s ever been done. The gals are walking up there and seeing their balls in boxes and they’re really happy.”

Players noticed

Many said the LPGA pros were excited about the new roots the event put down, even though it was painful to move away from the Coachella Valley. Brittany Lincicome, for example, was impressed with the treatment the players received.

“It’s been spectacular. From when we got here, picked up at the airport on Sunday, the Past Champions Dinner on Monday was spectacular, getting my Bentley on Tuesday, just the golf course even, too,” said Lincicome, who won the event twice, in 2009 and again in 2015. “You walk up to the range where the practice facility I’d probably practice more if I had that practice facility. I’m so jealous.

“But the golf course is perfect. It’s so beautiful. … it’s a long-hitter’s course. It’s narrow. There’s a lot of water and trouble. You really kind of have to work your way around the course, don’t short-side yourself. That’s where you’re going to be in big trouble.”

In terms of the practice range, Salzman said the organizers of the Chevron wanted to borrow ideas from perhaps the world’s most well-respected tournament, the Masters, even using the same technology on the range as those seen at Augusta National.

“This is the first time Toptracer Range has ever been at an LPGA event,” Salzman explained. “That package here was at the Masters and as soon as the Masters was done, we got it on a semi and they brought it here to set it up. First time in the history of the LPGA that arranged product has been available.”

Korda: ‘Crowds were amazing’

So most everything went well during the initial move, aside from some lengthy lines at the shuttle bus stop. Even the historic jump into the lake off 18 for winner Lilia Vu went off without a hitch. Fans were treated to a captivating playoff as Vu edged Angel Yin on the first hole. Nelly Korda was third after she buried a long eagle putt on the 18th hole to get within a shot of the playoff.

“The crowds were amazing. The crowds that we have gotten and followed my group were really great. They’re treating us really well. I like the golf course, too,” Korda said. “It’s challenging. I think the difference between Palm Springs that we played for so long and this golf course is that there’s just more water. It’s a little bit more wide open, let’s say, off the tee, but there are a lot of trees, so you kind of have to play within. The greens are pretty tough, as well. I would say Palm Springs is a little tighter off the tee, but they’re both really great golf courses, and I’ve heard, I’m not sure if this is true, that they’re going to be redoing the greens for next year, so we’ll see.”

“Chevron put together a player advisory group, just they wanted to know what was important to us to make the championship special,” said Stacy Lewis, who is a product of The Woodlands. “There’s obviously a lot of traditions with this event, and what was the traditions that were most important to us. They asked current players, they asked retired players, they asked everybody.

Lilia Vu holds the trophy after winning the 2023 Chevron Championship at The Club at Carlton Woods in The Woodlands, Texas. (Photo: Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

“Chevron crushed it. You see it with the trophy. Dinah’s Place on 18. Everything was about Dinah this week, and that’s what we tried to tell them over and over again is what was important.”

Fans also got an enhanced experience as just behind the ninth green sat an impressive structure named the Inspiration Dome, half of which housed a virtual reality experience sponsored by Accenture tapping into the life of an LPGA pro.

Among those who took part in the exhibit was LPGA Commissioner Mollie Marcoux Samaan.

LPGA Commissioner Mollie Marcoux Samaan engages herself in the Putt Like A Lady virtual reality experience during the final round of The Chevron Championship golf tournament. Mandatory Credit: Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

It was all part of a plan to make a splash in the first year of the event. Salzman understood the tradition the tournament built and wanted to stay true to the roots, but he said organizers were also shooting to make this an even larger spectacle, and insisted the plans for the future are to go even bigger.

“If the players need something, they get it. If they want it, they get it,” he said. “There are so many things about an event like this that I’ve heard, ‘Well, they don’t expect this or they typically don’t get that.’ But I ask, but they’d like it, right? Then let’s get it. I’ve already heard this is incomparable to anything they’ve experienced and I’m thinking, ‘Oh boy, then I’m really going to blow them away next year.’

“We’ve already got plans to make this so much bigger and better.”