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Tough times near end for Tampa Bay Classic

Everything from thin fields to terrorism have slowed the PGA Tour event's growth.

By BOB HARIG, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 15, 2002

PALM HARBOR -- Grabbing a spot among the PGA Tour's elite can be as difficult as taking on Tiger Woods down the stretch at a major championship. Those in town for this week's Tampa Bay Classic, many of whom would rather compete in a more high-profile event in Ireland, would attest.

And so, too, might the Tampa Bay Classic itself.

Just like the players, the Tampa Bay Classic wants to be considered among the tour's best. So far, it is not. But like a golfer pounding balls on the range day after day, the event has paid its dues. And better times are ahead.

While the Westin Innisbrook Resort will welcome a field of 156 players this week, a majority are household names to only the most ardent golf fans. The marquee names, such as Woods, Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson and David Duval, will play in Ireland at the American Express Championship, a World Golf Championship event that invites the top 50 in the world rankings, among others.

The Tampa Bay Classic is stuck with the leftovers, players competing for a $2.6-million purse, some fighting to regain form, some simply trying to survive on tour.

It is not necessarily the best way to sell golf to a sports community with plenty of leisure choices. But it was the only way. The payoff comes with a tournament in 2003 that will have no competition and a chance to attract the best, including Woods.

"PGA Tour tournaments are all about having the right chemistry," said Duke Butler, the PGA Tour's vice president of tournament business affairs. "I think the Tampa Bay Classic and their charitable foundation have all of the priorities covered. They've had great patience and vision to gain their own date and statured position on the schedule.

"They've really been a model for everybody, keeping the big picture in mind. "These are our goals, let's work toward these and not worry too much about what fate has dealt us.' They've always kept their priorities in order. And their day in the sun is upon us."

It didn't always look so bright. Not when JCPenney Co., which sponsored a mixed-team tournament of PGA and LPGA pros for 23 years, ended its relationship with the event in 1999. Not when dates conflicting with more prominent tournaments were the only option the past three years. Not when the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, caused the cancellation of last year's tournament, meaning tour funds were necessary to survive. And not when tournament director Gerald Goodman found out late last year his title sponsor was bowing out.

"It's been a long road," said Goodman, tournament director since '95. After losing JCPenney, Suncoast Golf Classic Inc., the non-profit company that owns the tournament, decided to pursue a regular PGA Tour event. That meant being played opposite other tournaments.

"It's been so tough. The public doesn't understand," Goodman said. "They don't live it and breathe it like we do. When they put us against those events, we were happy to take that and to have a date. And to tell you the truth, we would not be here right now were it not for the PGA Tour. They helped us with the purse. And Buick propped us up. We've been on TV every year, and none of that is free."

Then came the behind-the-scenes woes. The cancellation of last year's tournament led to unforeseen problems.

"We were faced with something that hadn't happened on the PGA Tour in more than 40 years," Goodman said.

Sponsorship money paid to the tournament could not be refunded, which would have raised the possibility of going out of business.

"Most of the sponsors let us keep the money they gave us last year, then got back in this year for half the cost, with the PGA Tour making up the difference," Goodman said.

Concerns about title sponsorship followed. Buick, a presenting sponsor of the tournament, had originally agreed to become the tournament's title sponsor in 2003, then changed its mind.

That left Goodman searching for a title sponsor in a tough economy. There are nine PGA Tour events without sponsors next year, including events at Doral in Miami and Disney in Orlando. Some face extinction.

Companies are asked to put up about $20-million over the course of the tour's four-year contract with the television networks.

Goodman and the PGA Tour worked to secure Chrysler as a sponsor for 2003-2006, when the event will be known as the Chrysler Championship of Tampa Bay. It will be played at the end of October, the second-to-last official event on the schedule.

"We feel very fortunate and very thankful," said Bob White, a past general chairman and member of the tournament's board of directors. "There were many times when it was tough, and it caused us to think about the best thing for the tournament and the charities and the community and so on. But we really felt committed to a long-term course of action."

By next year the tournament will have other concerns, such as if Woods will show up or if the Copperhead course is too hard.

In other words, good problems.

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