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One of Portland's main events — LPGA Safeway Classic — needs vote of confidence

NORTH PLAINS - There aren't many regular opportunities in the state of Oregon to watch the premier athletes in the world at their sport in person.

There's the NBA, of course, and the Trail Blazers. The Prefontaine Classic.

Some would argue for the Timbers, though most of the best on the planet are playing outside of Major League Soccer. Peter Jacobsen's new Umpqua Bank Challenge will bring in some of the biggest names in golf, but they are well past their prime.

That leaves the LPGA Safeway Classic, a fortress of entertainment for the region's sports fans for four decades.

It has had different names and title sponsors since the inaugural tournament at Portland Golf Club in 1972, but the best women golfers in the world have brought their act to Oregon for 40 straight years (except in 2001, days after the Sept. 11 disaster).

The Safeway Classic shares the distinction as the longest-running LPGA event with the Kraft Nabisco, a major that takes place each March in Rancho Mirage, Calif.

It could all end Sunday.

Safeway's sponsorship is up for renewal, and the grocer's spokespeople are saying they will meet and, at some point, make a decision about the future.

A decision isn't due until Oct. 15, 'but I think it's going to be very quick,' says Tom Maletis, in his 17th year as president of Tournament Golf Foundation, which operates the Safeway Classic. 'I'm optimistic. Last year at this time, they had the option to bring it back. It was the same thing, and it took about a month (after the 2010 event ended). They just have to get together and make their decision.'

There's no question the Safeway Classic is one of the jewels on the LPGA Tour, especially since the necklace isn't as heavily decorated as it once was. The 2011 calendar has 25 official money events - one more than in 2010 - but only 13 in the United States, one fewer a year ago. At its peak, there were 24 domestic tourneys on the tour.

Attrition and the economy have pared the number of events and left Portland on an island geographically on the tour, with Phoenix, Colorado Springs and Rancho Mirage its closest sister events. Stops in Seattle and San Jose long ago bit the dust.

'We're somewhat isolated from a lot of other tournaments' concerns,' says Maletis, who served from 2005-08 as president of the LPGA Tournament Association. 'Portland has always been a very healthy LPGA town. The players love to come here. When we moved from Columbia Edgewater to Pumpkin Ridge (in 2009), our attendance went from 60,000 to 80,000 - and that was in a tough window, when a lot of tournaments were going down. ... we're a unique market.'

Maletis expects the three-day attendance for this year's event to be around 80,000 again, and hopes to top $1 million in contributions for children's charities for the sixth straight year.

Attendance, by the way, is important, and it drives people to sponsoring Safeway, making it a 'win-win' proposition, as Maletis says. The Safeway food court is a popular stop for fans who annually load up on goodies before and after their gallery duties.

The tournament's real money-makers, though, are from its title sponsorship - somewhere in the low seven figures - and through a two-day pro-am event that this year featured 440 golfers.

'It's one of largest on tour,' Maletis says. 'It's the engine that drives the whole deal.'

After 40 years, TGF has learned a little about staging a tournament.

'Operations-wise,' Maletis says, 'we have it pretty well dialed in.'

LPGA players and officials have noticed.

'It's one of our favorite tournaments, not only from the golf course standpoint but in the way it's run,' Hall-of-Famer Juli Inkster says. 'We have a great fan base here. We have people who come out every year and support us. I would hate to see it go. It's great for the community here.

'Let's get real - there aren't many tournaments left in the U.S. We can't afford to lose this one. I'm hopeful Safeway will renew. It's great for women's golf, it's great for us, and I think it's good for them, too.'

LPGA Commissioner Michael Whan was in Portland Monday through Thursday. Some of his conversations were with Safeway officials.

'It's up to Safeway and TGF to negotiate, but we're a part of that,' says Mike Scanlan, the LPGA's director of media communications.

Rest assured, the LPGA is pushing for a new contract.

'Celebrating 40 years on tour speaks for itself,' Scanlan says. 'That's not lost on our players. They love coming out here. They love Safeway's support. They love Tom and his crew, who do a fantastic job.'

In recent years, the Safeway Classic has had a plum date, in late August when the weather is likely to be near-perfect. It's the only U.S. event on tour from early July through early September.

'It's nice to have a domestic event in August after our majors are through, and this is an ideal location,' Scanlan says. 'I hear so many players talk about how much they love the Pacific Northwest. It's a different atmosphere than a lot of our events. The folks out here are laid back, and the players like coming out here. They like the way of life - and so does the staff.

'It's a fantastic week for us, and we hope we can continue coming here for many more years.'

So we await Safeway's decision. It's not a great time for Maletis and his board of directors to be looking for a replacement.

'We have three big contracts - with the title sponsor, with the LPGA and with the golf course,' Maletis says. 'It's all really subject to title sponsorship.'

The LPGA is on board. So is Pumpkin Ridge, the best course in the area for the event. All that's missing is Safeway's signature on the dotted line.

I covered my first LPGA event in 1975, when it was called the Portland Ladies Classic. Jo Ann Washam earned $5,700 by winning the championship of an event with a purse of $40,000. This year, $1.5 million in prize money will be distributed, with $225,000 going to the champion.

Most of the LPGA's greatest names have won here over the years, from Donna Caponi to Kathy Whitworth to JoAnne Carner to Nancy Lopez to Dottie Pepper to Inkster to Annika Sorenstam to Lorena Ochoa.

The Safeway Classic is a tradition. It's a Portland institution, like Washington Park, the Ringside, the Church of Elvis and panhandlers working the downtown area.

'We're going to do everything we can to keep this thing going,' Maletis says.

Here's hoping Safeway feels the same way.