The ShopRite LPGA Classic stands alone as the area's premier sports event and this week marks the 35th Edition of the tournament, which routinely draws thousands of fans to Seaview Hotel and Golf Club's Bay Course.

This year's 144-player field is led by World No. 1 Jin Young Ko, who already has two victories and five top-10 finishes in seven events this year. The field also features four other top-10 players in Atthaya Thitikul (6), defending ShopRite Classic champion Brooke Henderson (8), Georgia Hall (9), and Hyo Joo Kim (10).

Henderson, who staged a dramatic rally to win last year's tournament in a playoff, will be seeking to join Anna Nordqvist (2015-16) as the ShopRite Classic's only back-to-back champions. Nordqvist will be trying to become the tournament's second three-time champion with Annika Sorenstam, who won in 1995, 2002 and 2005, respectively.

"It's really a lot of fun when you come to a venue as the defending champion," Henderson said earlier this week. "There is just a higher sense of energy, and you see yourself on different posters and pamphlets. I think that kind of energy is a good way to start the week. Gets you in the right place."

In addition to Henderson and Nordqvist, other past champions expected to compete this week include Mel Reid (2020), Annie Park (2018), In Kyung Kim (2017), Stacy Lewis (2012, 2014), and Angela Stanford (2003).

Teenager Chiara Noja and rising University of Florida senior Maisie Filler received sponsor exemptions into the field, as did former Hidden Creek Golf Club and current Philadelphia Cricket Club LPGA Teaching Professional Meaghan Francella. Francella is playing in the ShopRite Classic for the second straight year after a nine-year hiatus.

In addition to playing in front of friends and family last year, Francella also got to enjoy life off the course by visiting noted Atlantic City restaurant Chef Vola's.

"One of my students (at Philadelphia Cricket Club) is best friends with the owners (Louise and Michael Esposito), so I just sent him a text and got a reservation," Francella told "Juli Inkster used to make a note on her calendar to call like six weeks ahead of time to get a reservation there."

(On a personal note, I ate there once about 20 years ago and it was good, but I'll put Cape May's restaurants up against it any day).
The action actually started two days before the actual tournament, when the Pro-Am took place Wednesday and Thursday. It's by far the largest Pro-Am on any professional golf tour, with approximately 300 groups of five - four amateurs and a pro - playing on Seaview's Bay and Pines Courses, as well as nearby Galloway National.

The Pro-Am is so popular that organizers recruit current and former Symetra Tour players and various other personalities to serve as the "pros."

And whether you're a scratch golfer or can't break 100, tournament officials and sponsors treat you like a star. Participants are treated to an armful of swag, plus there's an after-party that this year is being held at Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City.

I've been lucky enough to play in it four times and each round left me with lasting memories. In past years, I was paired with former "The Big Break" contestant Elena Robles, former top-ranked LPGA star So Yeon Ryu, former UCLA golfer Brittany Mai, LPGA Tour veteran Julieta Granada and former Symetra Tour member Jennifer Neville.
Each round produced a few good shots, a lot of laughs, and some funny anecdotes, such as when my group was paired with Robles on the Pines course in 2017. Every hole had a tent containing free soft pretzels, hot dogs, water, and all the Tito's Vodka you could drink. By the 12th hole, it was tough to see my ball on the tee, let alone make solid contact.

Perhaps my favorite Pro-Am stint was in 2019, when I played with LPGA veteran Julieta Granada and her mother/caddie Rosa. I had first met them in 2005, when Julieta was an 18-year-old senior at the David Leadbetter Golf Academy in Florida and was playing the tournament on a sponsor’s exemption. During the round, we shared laughs and bratwursts while somehow managing to finish 10-under par as a team.

The most impressive part of the ShopRite Classic, however, has been it's staying power: Larry and Ruth Harrison were the driving forces behind creating the tournament - once known as the Atlantic City Classic - in 1986.

The tournament thrived for 11 years while being held at both Seaview and Greate Bay before a conflict with former LPGA executives over tournament dates prompted a three-year hiatus from 2007-09 until it was resurrected by Tim Erensen, Bill Hansen, and others.

Unofficially, the contract between the tournament and Seaview is supposed to expire after this year's tournament, but given its immense popularity and importance to the region, it's hard to imagine it not staying in the area for the foreseeable future. Hopefully, it will be here for at least another 35 years.

Now if you'll excuse me, I've got to make a reservation at Washington Inn for my 41st wedding anniversary on June 19. Karen and I had our rehearsal dinner there in 1982 and have been back to celebrate every year since.

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