The aura that embraces the Evian Championship is laced with the magic of a fairytale. From the two palatial hotels, the Royal and Ermitage, to the breathtaking views of Lake Geneva — Lac Léman to the locals — to the Evian Resort Golf Club, the experience is almost too good to be true. But for 25 years this special spot at Evian-les-Bains in the foothills of the French Alps has been a shining star in women’s golf.
The first six years, beginning in 1994, Evian was a stop on the Ladies European Tour. Then in 2000 it became a co-sanctioned event with the LPGA. In 2013, it was elevated to the LPGA’s fifth major and has already produced the youngest major winner, Lydia Ko at 18 in 2015; one of the oldest with 40-year-old Angela Stanford last year and the lowest round in a major by anyone – male of female – the 61 by Hyo-Joo Kim in 2014.
From the beginning, the golf has been as spectacular as the setting with Swedish star Helen Alfredsson winning the first competition in 1994 then going on to be the tournament’s only three-time champion. Among the legends who have hoisted the Evian trophy are Annika Sorenstam, Laura Davies, Karrie Webb, Juli Inkster, Inbee Park and Ai Miyazato, who like Davies and Sorenstam is a two-time winner.
From the very beginning, Franck Riboud, the honorary chairman of Danone, the parent company of Evian, and Jacques Bungert, vice chairman of the Evian Championship, have been committed to not only running a quality golf tournament but a special one. The players feel it from the moment they arrive.
They are lavished with not only one of the richest purses of the year but also amenities that include fireworks, a soccer match and parties galore, culminating Sunday with a parachutist landing on the 18th green with the flag from the home country of the winning player. Nothing about the Evian Championship is ordinary.
“My father always said, 'Surround yourself with people that dream bigger than you do,’” says Mike Whan, the Commissioner who made Evian an LPGA major. “Jacques Bungert and Franck Riboud dream as big as anyone I know. Since its inception as a women's golf event, Evian has pushed the boundaries for building a golf tournament that is simply like no other.”
Great tournaments don’t merely exist, they evolve, they grow, never satisfied with success but constantly pursuing a bolder vision. Such is the case with the Evian Championship, which redesigned its golf course first when it became an LPGA major and now yet again as it continues its relentless effort to provide the fans and the players with the most challenging and the most enjoyable venue.
“Great golf courses produce world-class champions and that is no different with the Evian Resort Golf Club,” says Heather Daly-Donofrio, Chief Tour Operations Officer for the LPGA. “After an extensive renovation for the inaugural playing of the event as a major championship in 2013, the course has continued to evolve, providing a major platform for the best players in the world to test their skills.”
The vistas gazed upon from the Evian Resort Golf Club are among the most breathtaking anywhere and the redesign, first undertaken by noted architect Steve Smyers after the 2012 tournament, greatly improved many of the holes. Now, two more tweaks have been added to amp up the enjoyment factor.
“Fans and players will be treated to a new back-nine par configuration on holes 13 and 18,” Daly-Donofrio says. “No. 13 shifts to a very difficult par-4 with a narrow landing area and an approach shot requiring a mid-to-long iron into an undulating green. No. 18 returns to a par-5, creating risk and reward opportunities for the players and additional excitement for the fans. Look for these changes to bring some major swings to the scoreboard on championship Sunday.”
From the very beginning, one of the goals of Riboud and Bungert was to make the players feel special and to provide women professional golfers the same tournament experience male pros are accustomed to receiving. They have exceeded that goal, creating an atmosphere that stands out as one of the most unique in all of sports and has served as a beacon shining light on equal treatment for women.
“Evian has built its own traditions, versus trying to copy others,” Whan says. “Very few global brands commit to women as their most important sports relationship and are willing to consistently push the boundaries in areas like purse levels.”
At a time when recognition of female athletes is growing, helped along by the LPGA’s DriveOn campaign and events such as the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship with its pioneering Women’s Leadership Summit, the Evian Championship stands out as an early crusader in leveling the playing field for women and men.
“I have no doubt in my mind that long after I'm the LPGA Commissioner, young women around the world will say, 'My goal is to make it to Evian Mountain and to raise that trophy with parachutists coming out of the sky with my country flag flying proud,'” Whan says. “We're lucky to have Evian, and their out-of-the-box thinking, as a true partner that is creating something truly historical for the world of women's golf."
The Evian Championship provides much more than a beautiful setting, lavish prize money and a truly major championship atmosphere. It makes a statement about how female golfers should be treated, a statement that for a quarter century now has grown in its vision, inspiring others to follow.