Tour de Golf Tours: The Champions Tour
The Dick’s Sporting Goods Open, as I assume is the case with most Champions Tour events, is compact and user-friendly. Like Futures Tour events, the competition takes place over three days rather than the four day timeframe of LPGA, Nationwide and PGA Tour events. The fields are also smaller, so there is no need for a cut in order to trim the number of players down for weekend play.
Still, in order to maximize time and course usage, the 78 player field in this event was divided in half – with each pro assigned a tee time that saw them begin their round on either the 1st or 10th hole. All of this enabled the festivities to begin at an extremely civilized 9:30 AM. Consequently, despite a 90 minute drive, my friend – the noted golf savant JC – and I arrived in time to grab a cup of coffee before the first tee shot of the day was struck.
Standing there gathering my bearings, it began to dawn on me that the groups of players were being introduced and teeing off at an exceptionally brisk clip. It was then that, in his customary role as Golf Fan and Forecaddie, JC pointed out that this particular golf course had a humongous tee box that accommodated both the 1st and 10th tees. And instead of the normal ten minute interval between tee times, tournament officials were alternating groups off of #1 and #10, spacing apart their send-offs by just five minutes.
This enabled fans to see the entire field get introduced and hit their first tee shot – all in one spot, and at an accelerated pace, no less. For the first time of many that day I said to JC, “There should always be a professional tour event here”.
En-Joie Golf Club, in Endicott, NY was for 35 years the home of the PGA Tour’s B.C. Open. I think that B.C. originally stood for Broome County, the location of Endicott as well as Binghamton, the somewhat more recognizable city next door. Somewhere along the way however, Endicott native Johnny Hart, the originator of the long-running B.C. comic strip became involved, and the cast of that prehistoric serial became the quasi-official mascots of the event.
For decades the tournament was the social event of the season for Endicott and the environs, surviving from one year to the next despite the lack of a corporate title sponsor and a slot in the PGA Tour schedule that saw it played the same week as the British Open – guaranteeing that the Tour’s big names would not be on hand.
Finally, the tournament organizers could no longer come up with the money that the Tour mandated in order to maintain its status as a sanctioned event, and in 2006 the last B.C. Open was played – ironically enough at Turning Stone Resort in Verona, due to severe flooding at En-Joie. While the PGA Tour couldn’t save the B.C. Open, it did reward the good people of Endicott with a Champions Tour event, and even brokered the deal that brought Dick’s Sporting Goods on as a title sponsor.
I wasn’t surprised when I heard of the demise of the B.C. Open, and in fact I remember thinking “What took them so long to pull the plug?” On Saturday I discovered the reason for the foot-dragging on the inevitable. I’ve never been on a golf course that was so perfectly suited to host a professional golf tournament.
Granted, En-Joie GC long ago became outmoded in terms of its distance and challenge for PGA Tour players. But from a fan’s standpoint, the course is golf tournament heaven. The shared tee box allowing the staggered tee-offs is just one example. Granted that is structurally unique to this golf course, but if it was possible to create that scenario on other tournament courses without massive reconstruction, this would be a standard “best practice”.
Another characteristic of the course that made it too small for a PGA Tour event but just right for a Champions Tour event, is an old style routing that “pinwheels” the back nine circularly around the outside of a similarly circular front nine. Thus, just as this creates the opportunity for the dual 1st and 10th tee, it also results in the 9th and 18th greens being located just over a small hill from each other – a tournament organizer’s dream scenario for its Corporate Row of VIP hospitality tents.
That is just one of the many multi-hole vantage points that are scattered throughout the course. Want to tour both the entire course and see as many golfers in the field as possible? No problem. Not only can you bounce back and forth from fairway to fairway – you can effortlessly switch your viewing preference from front nine to back nine, depending on who you want to watch play for a while.
And if you wanted to be able to pick a spot and watch a near constant stream of players coming and going off of adjoining greens and tees, you came to the right place. With very little footwork for example, JC and I were able to watch play on the 3rd, 4th, 7th and 14th greens, as well as the 8th and 15th tees. You can’t buy that kind of fan experience at too many places.
If you are a fan of great sponsorship activation (and seriously now, who among us isn’t?), you had to be impressed by the job done by Dick’s Sporting Goods. Not content to simply plaster their name all over the tournament, they effectively created a pop-up store location on-site – without overwhelming the tournament or its attendees with their presence. Particularly nice was the retail area stocked with merchandise bearing the tournament logo. Unlike the merchandise tents at other tournaments, which require the near-constant presence of a loan officer, it struck me that the prices were quite reasonable at several cost/value points. The apparel in particular seemed to be moving well.
Also popular were the interactive stations that Dick’s had set up for fans to drive, pitch and putt under simulated conditions. Even with tournament play on the course in full swing (sorry, bad golf pun), there were lines of people awaiting their turn at each of these stations.
Lastly, I’m guessing that as title sponsor of the event, Dick’s Sporting Goods had the rights to at least one of the attractive VIP hospitality tents that sat on the hill overlooking both the 9th and 18th greens. Judging by how well they activated their sponsorship throughout the course, I would think that the tents that were buzzing the most were the ones housing Dick’s invited guests.
As mentioned in previous posts, my having worked in the golf business has inadvertently sapped some of the joy from what was at one time my favorite sport. When on-site at a golf tournament these days, I often wind up paying attention to things like signage placement more than the golf being played. I’m not precisely sure why, but at least on this day the following experience provided a temporary cure.
We spent some time in the company of a pairing that featured Argentinean golfer Eduardo Romero, who is known by the nickname “El Gato” (The Cat). The 2008 winner of this tournament, Romero is an imposing figure who plays fast and hits the ball a mile. But it was his mode of dress that caught my attention, for he was wearing the nicest-looking pair of silk pants that I’d seen in quite a while. I contracted a case of Wardrobe Envy, and in my mind “El Gato” quickly became “Los Pantalones”.
Despite following the group for several holes though, the appropriate time to inquire as to where he shopped for his pants never quite seemed to materialize – imagine that. His caddie did at one point however, toss me a bottle of water from the player-only cooler on the tee box. And just that easily, I became a Golf Fan again. JC bought me a beer to celebrate the occasion and welcome me back into the fraternity. Viva Los Pantalones!