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Local sponsor gambled on luring PGA stop and won

When it lost J.C. Penney as a sponsor, the Suncoast group found favor with the tour and with Buick.

By BOB HARIG

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 15, 2000


During his five years as tournament director of the JCPenney Classic, Gerald Goodman made it his goal to attract the best field possible by upgrading the event and giving players a reason to come to the Tampa Bay area in early December, despite other lucrative options.

But while Goodman and the charitable organization for which he works, Suncoast Golf Classic Inc., had grand plans, the company putting up the money did not. J.C. Penney Co. saw its financial obligation growing, and decided to put its sponsorship dollars in a less expensive venture, an LPGA event.

That, briefly, is how this week's Tampa Bay Classic was born.

When J.C. Penney opted to no longer be part of the mixed-team tournament it had sponsored since the late 1970s, Suncoast Golf Classic decided to gamble on the PGA Tour.

The result is an official, $2.4-million event at the Westin Innisbrook Resort, with 144 players competing. The winner receives $432,000.

This year, the PGA Tour is backing the tournament, but in 2001 and 2002, Buick will become the main sponsor. Although the event will be played at the same time as the Presidents Cup this year and goes up against the World Golf Championship the next two years, Goodman believes this is an excellent opportunity to showcase the Tampa Bay area and its ability to have a tournament of this stature.

"We hope to put our best foot forward," Goodman said. "We hope the fans will come out and support us as they have in the past. The tour will be looking at us to see how we conduct ourselves, to see if we can rise up to the level of a regular event. And we expect the Copperhead course will be a challenging golf course that the players enjoy."

Buick's future involvement is a big boost. Buick sponsors the Buick Invitational in La Jolla, Calif., the Buick Classic in Rye, N.Y., the Buick Open in Grand Blanc, Mich., and the Buick Challenge in Pine Mountain, Ga. The company also has a high-profile endorsement deal with Tiger Woods, who is required to play a certain number of Buick events.

That will be of no help to the Tampa Bay event now. As the No. 1-ranked player in the world, Woods will be playing in the Presidents Cup this week, and presumably the World Golf Championship stroke-play event the next two years. Woods won the inaugural World Golf stroke-play tournament in 1999.

But Buick is a big player on the tour and is in its fifth decade as the PGA Tour's original corporate sponsor.

"When we get involved in these things, we tend to do it for the long run," said Jim McGovern, the director of Buick Golf Marketing. "We envision this to be a long-term relationship. I don't know what the tour has planned, but we'd like to be there with them."

Although Buick will not be involved with this year's event -- other than as the "official" car -- representatives will be at Innisbrook to discuss the future.

The purse will rise to $2.5-million next year and to $2.6-million in 2002. Buick will "supplement" the purse as well as have a large corporate presence at the event. The proposed dates are Sept. 13-16 in 2001 and Sept. 19-22 in 2002.

Beyond that, no PGA Tour events have officially established dates. PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem will begin contract negotiations next year with the television networks, and Goodman hopes that area support and the tournament site will be good enough to warrant consideration for an official event that stands on its own.

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