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Lame-Duck Atmosphere Hangs Over Mesa Verde Tournament

Times Staff Writer

Some of the first-round fireworks at the Uniden LPGA Invitational weren’t apparent on the leader board Thursday.

Orange County’s only pro golf tour event opened in a lame-duck atmosphere with the title sponsor poised to take its money and run, while the Mesa Verde Country Club membership feuded with the tournament’s executive producer, Larry Igarashi.

The crisis comes with the Sunday expiration of Igarashi’s three-year contracts with Uniden, Mesa Verde and the LPGA.

What it all means is that the women pros may be moving on to greener fairways for the second time in five years. After playing Costa Mesa for three years ending in 1981, the Women’s Kemper Open moved to Hawaii. Uniden hopes to move its $1 million commitment to its own event at Valencia next year.

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Igarashi, who owns a golf equipment company, infuriated Mesa Verde members with comments in Wednesday’s Orange County Register that criticized the club’s performance in supporting and staging the tournament and indicated he would like to move the event to another Orange County site.

Bill Plumley, the tournament’s general chairman, said: “It shows a lack of class to start knocking the country club right in the middle of the tournament. I take offense . . . on behalf of Mesa Verde Country Club.”

Igarashi disputed the newspaper report that he planned to change courses.

“I said, ‘At this moment I don’t know. The contract will be expired and I haven’t negotiated for renewal, but there are many golf courses in Orange County, and definitely I want to stay in Orange County. If Mesa Verde negotiations didn’t go well, then I’d have to look for another site.’ ”

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But, apparently, he would have to line up another major sponsor. Last year Uniden, which makes communications equipment, moved its American corporate headquarters from Huntington Beach to Indianapolis and also bought the Valencia public golf course in northern Los Angeles County.

John Okazaki, Uniden’s executive vice president, gave those moves as reasons for not renewing the contract with Igarashi and the tournament.

Okazaki said Uniden will convert the Valencia facility to a private club for special events.

“We are interested in continuing to sponsor this kind of sporting event in Southern California but, obviously, because of our full involvement in Valencia, we would like to host that type of event at our own golf course.

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“Golf is a very natural sport for us to support,” Okazaki added. “Ideally, we would like to have another tournament next year so that we would not lose momentum.”

There may be a problem since the LPGA already has one tournament in Los Angeles County--the GNA/Glendale Federal tournament at Oakmont in Glendale in March--and doesn’t like to double up geographic markets.

“It generally doesn’t make very good economic sense,” LPGA Commissioner John Laupheimer said. “But if somebody were to come to me, I’d have to evaluate it.”

Laupheimer met with Igarashi Wednesday to discuss the situation but indicated he wouldn’t become a mediator.

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“I do everything I can, but my role is to bring the players,” he said. “The sponsor (Igarashi) puts on the golf tournament.”

However, should Mesa Verde find itself competing against Igarashi to stage the next LPGA event in Orange County, Laupheimer made it clear he would be in Igarashi’s corner.

“Certainly, I’m going to deal with somebody with whom I’ve had a good relationship for three years,” he said.

Said Plumley: “It’s very obvious to me that he (Igarashi) has no intentions of bringing the tournament back here.”

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Igarashi: “There are other courses I can go to. They’ve been really nice to us at Mesa Verde. They could do a little better, but so far I’m really pleased.”

Igarashi, who has talked with Uniden President Hidero Fujimoto about the tournament, hasn’t given up on the company’s sponsorship.

“There’s still a chance. They are really impressed by my tournament this year. I got Bob Hope, Connie Stevens, Dinah Shore and those people involved, and the weather’s good. There were a lot of improvements. They really loved this year’s tournament.”

If Uniden doesn’t return, Igarashi said: “I have several people interested. But I have every intention to continue with Uniden and continue with Mesa Verde as much as possible.”

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