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On Tour, Competition Trumps Pro-Am

John Reger – SCOTTSDALE, ARIZONA I When the temperature hovered at 42 degrees on Wednesday and the morning frost still hadn’t thawed, PGA Tour tournament officials made the painful decision to cancel the pro-am of the Waste Management Phoenix Open, turning away 104 amateurs who had paid $9,500 for the privilege of teeing it up with the professionals.

            Fortunately, most of those golfers were sponsored by businesses and were not out the entry fee from their own pockets. When companies sign up for pro-ams and they are affected by weather, they understand that refunds are not possible.

            The Thunderbirds, the charity organization that operates the event, was able to provide the pro-am golfers with some extra perks. They organized a lunch where most of the professionals were able to come in and talk with the group they were supposed to play with and, in some ways, the amateurs got more interaction than if they had been on the golf course. They also were able to set up golf on Friday at Phoenix Country Club for the participants and many played a bonus round on Saturday.

    “Certainly, our senior management from a number of corporations that we invite here for that bucket list check-off were disappointed they didn’t get to play, but they understood,” said Steve Neff, vice president of strategic business development for Waste Management.

     “The PGA Tour and the players completely understand how important it is having the sponsors and the sponsor’s guests engaged with them. Rickie Fowler, Charley Hoffman, Joe Ogilvie were excellent. Phil Mickelson missed the four people in his group that he was supposed to meet and said he would come in and meet them and sign anything they want.”

            What was lost, though, was the bulging crowd that descends on TPC Scottsdale and spends money on food and plenty of alcohol at this event that is equal parts party and golf tournament.

            Even though not one stroke of golf was played on Wednesday, an estimated crowd of 15,000 showed up and braved the chilly conditions, visiting skyboxes and patronizing vendors. That size of a crowd would be an attendance record at some other tournaments, but for the Waste Management Open, it was well below the 45,000 to 60,000 the event averages on that day.

    “It was a disappointment from a dollar standpoint,” said Mike McQuaid, tournament chairman. “We don’t know yet how much money we lost. We do know that this was the least attended Wednesday pro-am day that we’ve had in many, many years. Not having fans out to support our vendors is where we lose money.”

            Let’s say the tournament would have attracted 50,000 fans instead of the 15,000 that came; take the 35,000 differential and conservatively assume that every person spent an average of $25 on food, drinks and souvenirs, and the tournament lost $875,000 in revenue.

            One suggestion that has been offered by some, including former PGA Tour player Peter Jacobsen, was to stage the pro-am on Thursday and reduce the tournament to 54 holes. Jacobsen has long maintained that the Tour doesn’t do enough to support sponsors and fans and he has chided players who avoid pro-am events, like the Bob Hope Classic or the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.

            While Jacobsen definitely has a point, it is a separate issue. Getting a golfer to be a little more fan friendly is far different than changing the parameters of a competitive event. You simply cannot compensate the sponsor because of weather.

            The Tour wouldn’t even consider shortening the event to 54 holes to avoid a Monday finish.

            “I kind of threw that out there,” said Slugger White, the chief PGA Tour rules official on site, about the idea of a 54-hole finish. “It’s just against our regulations to not (play 72 holes). If we would have had a bad forecast on Monday, now we’re talking a bit different.”

            McQuaid and Neff were both resigned that there is little that can be done when weather prevents a pre-tournament event from happening. The reality is the Tour is going to do everything possible to complete 72 holes of play. Not only was the Wednesday event cancelled but because of a Monday finish, a scheduled pro-am for that day might have to be cancelled or rescheduled.

            “Keep in mind that tournament play takes precedent over everything we do out here and that’s why we had to postpone play because you don’t want to ruin the golf course for the tournament,” McQuaid said. “As significant as it is for the amateurs and the people who support the tournament, the Tour would never rearrange the tournament because of that.”

            Waste Management rescued this event after FBR pulled out of its sponsorship deal in 2009. The Tour owes Waste Management some form of compensation as a show of gratitude for saving one of the longest running tournaments, but changing the tournament’s format isn’t the answer.  

            The primary reason for the event is the competition. Everything else is secondary. Both sponsors and local tournament officials understand that reality and willingly accept it.

            Weather is going to affect golf tournaments and pro-am cancellations are rare. Let’s not change a system that has worked well for many years


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