Sports - December 2005

Move to fall springs new trap for golf tournament
By Chris Roush

When it comes to pro sports, Greensboro has been second-string. Sure, it hosted a National Hockey League team from 1997 to 1999 — but only because the Carolina Hurricanes were still building their home arena in Raleigh.

In 2004, minor-league hockey and arena-football teams closed shop in Greensboro. The city still has a baseball team — the Grasshoppers — but it’s Single-A ball, more akin to what you would expect of Kinston. Durham and Charlotte have Triple-A teams. Even Zebulon has a Double-A team.�

The one exception has been golf. Major tournaments have come and gone and come back again in Charlotte and Pinehurst, but Greensboro has had a yearly stop on the tour since 1938. Now not even the Chrysler Classic of Greensboro — you’re forgiven if you still call it the GGO — is safe. It definitely will be played next year, but the PGA Tour is taking a hard look at its schedule as it starts negotiating a TV contract for 2007. The tour wants to cut back — it hasn’t said by how much — from the 48 events it runs and end its season in late September or early October.

That could mean the Greensboro event — held in October the past three years — won’t make the cut. “To say we’ve been battling is a major understatement,” tournament director Mark Brazil says. “We’re fighting like crazy.” He expects a decision from the tour by the end of the year.

The loss of the tour stop would be one more blow to a city that already stands to lose one of its two Fortune 500 headquarters early next year if the $7.5 billion sale of insurer Jefferson-Pilot to Philadelphia-based Lincoln National closes as planned. Among other things, the tournament gives the city television exposure. “You get some residual effect from people hearing about the Greensboro tournament,” says Dan Lynch, president of the Greensboro Economic Development Partnership. “That kind of coverage is priceless. I couldn’t afford to do that with my budget.”

The tournament took action this year to convince the PGA Tour that it should keep its tour card. Long run by the Greensboro Jaycees, it is operated now on a day-to-day basis by a charitable foundation created earlier this year. Members include some of the city’s biggest movers and shakers, including J-P CEO Dennis Glass and former Mayor Jim Melvin. That will give the tournament some much-needed gravitas and continuity. Previously, a different Jaycee would come in each year to run things. “The Jaycees kept the tournament where it was, but other tournaments were improving steadily, and we weren’t,” says Brazil, a North Carolina native who became tournament director in 2001. Adds Melvin, “You’ve got people now thinking about the tournament on a more serious basis than you had. And you have people with resources. We’re not going to give up without giving it a go.”

The tournament also bolstered its sponsorships. Matthews-based Harris Teeter and Greensboro-based VF signed six-figure checks to become premier partners, a notch below Chrysler. Nine companies joined as tournament partners, a level below premier. That gave the tourney more of a big-event feel. Brazil says sponsorship revenue increased 15% this year, though he declined to give dollar amounts.

Aided by discounts, the tournament also sold 20% more tickets than in 2004, topping 100,000. Those fans were able to keep track of players by watching a digital leader board donated by insurance giant American International Group, parent of Greensboro’s United Guaranty. Until this year, scores were posted manually.

“We were at one time one of the largest galleries on the circuit,” says Melvin, who played twice in the tournament’s pro-am event with actor Craig T. Nelson. “We easily would draw 30,000 to 40,000 on a Saturday and Sunday.”

Until 2002, the tournament had been in March or April, just before the Masters Tournament. The spring date made the event one of the few major sporting events in North Carolina then, but it was problematic in other ways. The date was early enough that it was usually cool and occasionally rainy. Plus, many players skipped that week to practice for the Masters. In the end, Chrysler, the tour and tournament officials believed the switch to fall could help save the event.

Now some aren’t so sure giving up the spring date was a good idea. “It was unfortunate to move away from that,” says Dennis Barry, former CEO of Moses Cone Health System in Greensboro. “Some of us would hope to have a spring date in the future.”

First, the new board and Brazil need to sink the toughest putt of their lives. “At the end of the day,” he says, “it’s about whether we can raise the revenue to do the things we need to do to raise the level of this golf tournament. We still have some work to do.”