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Searching for bigger crowds

By HUBERT MIZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 23, 2000


PALM HARBOR -- From home, Johnny came marching.

Nobody loves the Copperhead course more, knows it more passionately, plays it more adeptly than Johnny Ray Huston.

So fitting, the kid from Dunedin, nicely matured as Westin Innisbrook's touring pro, manhandles the killer finishing holes, hearing the cheers of neighbors, to shoot 65 and win the first Tampa Bay Classic.

More should've been watching.

Tournament director Gerald Goodman figured Sunday's attendance at 15,000. Generous estimate. "This being the PGA Tour's return to the Tampa Bay area, with such an excellent field including some of golf's more popular names, we hoped to maybe double the JCPenney (mixed-team event) numbers," he said. It deserved 25,000.

Comparisons are natural with the JCPenney Classic, which for 23 years brought pairings of women and men pros. To me, walking around at the Tampa Bay Classic, galleries seemed smaller despite a marquee that figured to be magnetic, the names including Couples, Faldo, Leonard, Janzen and Huston.

"I thought, with 10 major champions, our crowds would be better," Goodman said. "There were many terrific positives, like excellent corporate response and bigger walk-up ticket sales. Maybe it's just a case of getting used to something different."

Different, and better.

On golf's global buffet line, having the PGA Tour is a far tastier dish than the JCPenney mixed-team concoction. Tiger Woods and 23 other celebrities were tied up at Presidents Cup matches, but the appeal of the inaugural Tampa Bay Classic roster seemed exceptional, this being October and prime football/baseball time.

I'm not exactly grumbling. It's more a state of being perplexed. Even a bit confused. Considering the thundering crowds drawn by the Senior PGA Tour in Tampa, interest in the game appeared to be at a regional high. On the world stage, golf has never been bigger, with Woods the largest factor.

So along comes the PGA Tour, touching down in our neighborhood for the first time since 1964, with a fancier field than anybody should've expected. Why, then, I keep asking myself, was the Copperhead course not teeming with people?

"We met our ticket sales expectations in Pinellas," Goodman said. Okay, read between his words. Sounds as though Hillsborough County was not so eager. If so, why? Another case of bridge disease? Gee, don't I have a lot of questions, but so few answers?

Attendance was the only troubling factor. Raves for Copperhead among the pros were extraordinary. I figured they'd say, "It's of PGA Tour quality." But no, it was more a landslide of high thinking, many saying the Innisbrook jewel was superior to Bay Hill, Doral, TPC Sawgrass and other Florida tour venues.

"We're excited and figuring that everything will grow," Goodman said. "Folks will become more used to having the PGA Tour around. A lot of adjustments have been made, with more to come. The mechanics were quite different from the old JCPenney Classic."

Goodman also was boss on the LPGA/PGA deal. "JCPenney used a load of pro-am spots for its clients," he said. "So it was new that a majority of those slots were up for sale to local individuals."

The price for playing 18 holes Wednesday with PGA Tour companionship was $4,000. Places were available for 208 amateurs. Ten percent went unsold. That might seem a stiff fare for a few hours of golf, but it's on the low side, according to 2000 averages. Pro-am participants in Phoenix pay $12,000.

"We knew a period of education was needed," Goodman said, "so our marketing budget was doubled. Lots of advertising. Media coverage has been strong. ... It's hard to believe that anybody interested in golf did not know this tournament was going on."

Beginning next year, the Classic gains a title sponsor. Buick has agreed to a deal for 2001 and 2002. The dates will be moved to September, which will make it more difficult to match the strength of the 2000 field. Eleven months from now, the tournament plays the same weekend as a World Golf Championships event in St. Louis, which will take the top 50 golfers on the planet.

Assessing the Tampa Bay appetite, golf savvy is a factor. For even casual followers of the PGA Tour, it has to be evident that golf has never been deeper in talent. Every event craves Woods, but few get him, but still the group skills are considerable, far more impressive, top to bottom, than the talent pools of tennis, baseball and hockey.

Maybe next year more people will notice. Perhaps more will feel an urge to appear at Innisbrook, seeking an in-person brush with the PGA Tour.

On the golf scale, this new babe is at least two plateaus up from the dearly departed JCPenney Classic.

At least I think so.

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