Where sporting achievements take place often plays as significant a role to the people who achieve them. Tiger Woods’ major championship comeback had to occur at the Masters. No other place fulfilled the storybook ending like the 18th green at Augusta National, the place where it all began for him 22 years before. The first World Series after 9/11 had to be played at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, 12 miles up the Hudson River from the still-burning rubble from the World Trade Center. Forget that the Yankees lost. The setting made the story.
But other venues aren’t quite so obvious, even though the stories they have authored remain seared in our memories. For example, remember when Stacy Lewis, who had gone so long without a victory that people began to wonder if she’d ever win again, made an emotional comeback after pledging to donate her earnings to hurricane relief in her residence of Houston, Texas? It was the subject of an ESPN documentary called “Stacy’s Gift” and was one of those stories that made headlines outside of sports. But do you remember what tournament she won? What city it was in?
If you follow golf, you also no doubt remember the putt that Suzann Pettersen holed to win the 2019 Solheim Cup in Scotland – the final shot of the final match on the final green at Gleneagles. It has been replayed hundreds of times and was the inspiration for another documentary, “Her Final Putt.” Pettersen beat Marina Alex in that match. And one of the most iconic images of that event was the hug between Pettersen and Alex on the last green before the European team and thousands of fans swarmed the green in celebration. That picture encapsulates the Solheim Cup, past, present and future.
But do you remember the event Alex won that earned her a spot on the U.S. team?
The answer to both those stories is the Cambia Portland Classic, which is celebrating its 50th year, the longest-running non-major on the LPGA Tour.
Portland was the spot of Stacy’s Gift and the place where Alex broke through for her maiden LPGA Tour victory. It is also where Pettersen won twice in three years and where Austin Ernst, now a three-time LPGA Tour winner and a member of two U.S. Solheim Cup teams, captured her first career victory in 2014.
So much drama has come out of the Cambia Portland Classic that it’s hard to keep up. One of the U.S. players to vault onto the scene this year has been Yealimi Noh, the 20-year-old from California who came within a whisker of winning the Amundi Evian Championship. As one of Pat Hurst’s U.S. captain’s picks, Noh went 2-1 in this year’s Solheim Cup. She partnered with Mina Harigae (also a captain’s pick) to knock off a strong European pairing of Sophia Popov and Celina Boutier in fourballs. Then Noh beat European team leader Mel Reid in singles.
But Noh’s real breakout - the moment she knew she could compete at the highest level while also learning a valuable lesson on closing – came in 2019 at the Cambia Portland Classic. There, Noh, then just 18 years old, led late into the final round before losing to Hannah Green by a single shot. It was a heartbreaker. And it was exactly the lesson the teenager needed.
Two weeks ago in Toledo, facing an emotionally charged Reid in the singles and needing to secure a full point for the trailing U.S. team, Noh sprinted to a 4-up lead and held firm into the back nine, winning her match 1 up and keeping the Americans’ hopes alive for a little longer.
That moment was not too big for Noh because she’d been there before. In Portland.
Of course, everyone in sports knows Brooke Henderson, the winningest Canadian golfer in history and arguably the most influential public golf figure in all of Canada. Henderson’s musings make headlines and sway opinions. A two-time Olympian and major champion, she, at age 24, is a national treasure. It’s easy to forget that, as a 17-year-old, she struggled to get playing opportunities. Despite coming close of winning the Swinging Skirts LPGA at Lake Merced and challenging Inbee Park until the last few holes of the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship in 2015, Henderson was too young to be an LPGA Tour member. The only way for her to successfully petition for an age exemption was to win, as Lydia Ko and Lexi Thompson had done before her.
Which is exactly what Henderson did…in Portland. At the 2015 Cambia Portland Classic, Henderson went through Monday qualifying to earn a spot in the field. She then went on a tear, shooting 21-under par for the week and winning the event by eight shots, an emphatic exclamation point and a sign that this young woman was here to stay. The next year, Henderson returned to Portland as a major champion, having won the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship in a dramatic shootout with Lydia Ko and Ariya Jutanugarn. Henderson then defended her title in Portland, this time capturing the event by four shots over Stacy Lewis.
Will the Cambia Portland Classic, which is being staged at a new golf course this year, Oregon Golf Club in West Linn, author another memorable story? Will someone like defending champion Georgia Hall capture her first win on American soil? Will a veteran mount a career comeback? Or will a young player burst into the collective consciousness of fans?
We will know those answers this weekend. The Cambia Portland Classic gets underway Thursday morning.