Shapes of things to come: The LPGA at Papago

    “He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future.’’
                                                                       — George Orwell, British author
      The LPGA’s sudden – some might say, premature – move to Papago Golf Course is a sign of the times.
      In case you haven’t heard, just about the time most observers thought there was a good chance the LPGA Phoenix International was about to be canceled for lack of a tournament site, in rides the Arizona Golf Association and the City of Phoenix to rescue the LPGA with its newly renovated golf course.
      But according to Tom Maletis of the sponsoring Tournament Golf Foundation, moving the $1.5 million tournament set for March 26-29 to Papago wasn’t a last-second, desperation move despite the date being less than two months away.
     “We had done our due diligence on about six or so courses in the Phoenix area as possible tournament sites, and had a big board of pluses and minuses on each one, which was a very long and delicate process,’’ Maletis explained. “The reason the decision came so late was we were holding out, waiting for Superstition Mountain Country Club’s decision.
      “When we decided there wasn’t going to be one made in time, we accepted a very generous offer from the City of Phoenix and Ed Gowan and his people at the AGA. But I knew all along we were going to have the tournament. There was never any doubt about that.’’
      Before we go any further about how the city, AGA, LPGA and TGF are going to pull off this event in the next six weeks, let’s start with Superstition Mountain, which had hosted the tournament quite successfully for the past five years under the Safeway banner.
      Unfortunately, it’s all gloom and doom at Superstition Mountain these days, the biggest bummer being the two courses and the clubhouse are in default receivership and going on the auction block exactly one week prior to the tournament. Hey, if you’ve got an extra $18 million laying around in your bank account you too can join the bidding, which will start at that rather hefty sum.
     Maletis acknowledged that the original plan by TGF and the LPGA, which is propping up the tournament financially after Safeway pulled out last year as a title sponsor, was to keep it at Superstition Mountain “because they had done such a wonderful job in the past, and it would have been easy to just plug in the pieces.’’
     “But we just didn’t know who would emerge as owners (from the auction), and who we’d be dealing with out there so we went to our strongest back-up plan,’’ said Maletis, noting that numerous groups are expected to bid on the Superstition Mountain properties.
     Actually, Papago had been on Maletis’ radar for the past year, chiefly because Marvin French, whose management team runs Papago, has been a close friend of Maletis’ for over 20 years.
    “Marv and I go way back to our days with the U.S. Women’s Open(s) at Pumpkin Ridge, and even before that, as we’re both from the Portland area,’’ said Maletis, noting that the TGF is headquartered near that Oregon city, where it also runs the LPGA’s Safeway Classic.
    “A while back, Marv had told me about Papago, what a great golf course it is and what a great tournament site it would be for the LPGA, although he said he had some reservations that it wouldn’t be ready in time for (this year’s) tournament . . . but maybe in 2010. Then he called back a couple of weeks ago and said the course was coming along nicely, and that he thought it would be ready to go (in March) if we still needed it.’’
     Turns out, Maletis and the LPGA did in the worst way, which is not to say that Papago isn’t maturing in the best way possible since re-opening to the public in December. It’s just that there’s only a double-wide trailer there serving as a clubhouse, and the greens — at least the last time we saw them — were more brown than green. The saving grace there is, the greens were rolling nicely and there’s always green spray paint.
    At the same time, not having any permanent buildings on the property gives organizers a wide-open canvas to create temporary structures wherever they are needed, as long as you don’t mind standing in line for a Porta-Pottie.
   But how will the pros feel about changing their clothes and spikes under the big top or possibly in a double-wide? Maletis said that’s the least of his worries.
   “We can get pretty fancy with a temporary locker room if we have to,’’ he said of one of many logistical/infrastructure problems that are pending.
    “Really, how much time are the pros going to spend in the locker room, any way? At this point, the main thing is having the tournament, and I think any complaining about a locker room would only be perceived as in poor taste considering all that’s going on here.’’
    No, Maletis is more concerned with “the unknowns,’’ and in this order:
   *How many people will show up at Papago?
   *Will organizers have enough help to get everything in place, and will they have enough volunteers to run the event?
   *Will the players like Papago and enjoy the tournament experience?
   “These are the exact same things we faced when we moved the tournament from Moon Valley Country Club to Superstition Mountain (in 2004),’’ he noted. “And that turned out to be a great move, which is the way we hope this one ends up.’’
  From here, the mission is certainly full of challenges but not impossible.
  First of all, Papago is centrally located on the borders of Phoenix, Tempe and Scottsdale. That should make it more accessible than the remote location at Superstition Mountain in the far East Valley. (And fans won’t have to fight the annual traffic jam that came with the Renaissance Festival.)
      The parking also should be better than Superstition Mountain with no major highway to cross, and large paved lots located at nearby Phoenix Municipal Stadium, the Phoenix Zoo, and the Desert Botanical Gardens. Sure, fans won’t be able to enter the course through that teeny-tiny opening off 52nd Avenue (Moreland Street). But creating a public entrance on the south side of the course should solve that problem, Maletis noted.
     Granted, the pro-ams of the past will take a hit with only one course available. That will reduce the potential from six pro-ams (on two courses at Superstition Mountain) to just the traditional Wednesday pro-am at Papago. Obviously, that’s going to cut revenues drastically. But as Maletis noted: “At this point the LPGA is just happy to be back in Phoenix and we’re just trying to keep it alive, so maybe we can get a title sponsor and come back in 2010.’’
    There’s the hardest part – finding a title sponsor for the future. With the economy totally in the tank and looking bleak for the next year – a theme that’s certain to vex the LPGA’s lineup across the board – where do we go from here?
    “That’s not just an LPGA problem,’’ Maletis countered. “That’s a major problem for the PGA Tour and all of professional golf: Where do you find corporate sponsors when corporations are mostly in financial straits and cutting back right now?’’
     The full title of this tournament will be the LPGA Phoenix International presented by Mirassou Wines. But don’t be confused, as Mirassou is a sponsor of the LPGA, and this is just the LPGA’s way of getting Mirassou a little ink and air time as payback. The majority of the $1.5 million purse as well as other infrastructure costs involved here are strictly LPGA money.
    But Maletis said there will be community support, companies like SRP and whomever, putting up smaller amounts of cash in the form of tournament-related events and buying pro-am spots. And he said what happens at Papago in the near future, and to the LPGA in general, might end up being the shapes of things to come.
     “It’s all changing and changing quickly,’’ he explained. “The problem is most corporations can’t make a (financial) commitment of this magnitude ($4 million to $5 million) to become a title sponsor when their businesses are losing money and they are laying off employees.
     “Unfortunately, I don’t think things are going to turn around in the next six months in time for us to line up a title sponsor here in Phoenix in 2010. Seriously, that might be the case for years. Who knows?
     “So we might have to create a new model, one that brings together local sponsors like the AGA, the City of Phoenix and local companies, who essentially band together with a lot of support from the fans, who show their support by buying tickets.
     “That could become the model for the future – combining lots of local support and being more creative. Sort of like we used to do things way back in the old days before corporate sponsors took over.’’
     Ah, yes, back to the future — yet another sign of the times.
Bill Huffman has covered golf in Arizona for over 20 years for the Arizona Republic and East Valley Tribune as well as writing the book Arizona’s Greatest Golf Courses. He co-hosts Backspin the Golf Show on XTRA Sports 910 AM each Wednesday (6-7pm) and Saturday (9-11am).  To reach Bill directly please email him at [email protected] or call 480-540-1780.