Webb, Papago come out winners

     A golden opportunity is knocking at the door of the City of Phoenix – loudly!
      It’s the J Golf Phoenix LPGA International, which just returned triumphantly from the far East Valley to Phoenix.
      Held at the City’s restored and highly acclaimed municipal facility, Papago Golf Course, approximately 131,000 fans showed up last week to celebrate the tournament’s 30th anniversary. Only four months out of a $6.5 facelift, Papago played to solid reviews, sharing the stage with the eventual champ, Hall of Famer Karrie Webb who held off a young and talented group of Koreans.
      In fact, Sunday’s final round was such a smash hit – it drew the week’s largest crowd of 39,000 fans – the tournament’s success left organizers pleasantly stunned.
      Considering two-time defending champ Lorena Ochoa never threatened to three-peat, that Paula Creamer and Natalie Gulbis WD-ed before things got serious, and that Michelle Wie and Morgan Pressel never were a factor, it was an amazing turnout presumably sparked by the curiosity about the “new’’ Papago.
      “To announce the tournament was moving here to Papago just last month, and then to turn around and get the job done in seven weeks, oh, that feels great,’’ said Tom Maletis, the president of the Portland-based Tournament Golf Foundation that managed the event and oversaw its transition to Papago from Superstition Mountain Golf and Country Club, the tournament’s site from 2004-2008.
     “I’d like to thank the Mayor (Phil) Gordon, Rob Harman and his staff (Parks and Recreation), and the City of Phoenix for making this happen. I am encouraged they are as excited about keeping this event here in Phoenix (at Papago) as we are.  
    “I also want to thank the Arizona Golf Association and its foundation for getting the ball rolling at Papago. Without their efforts to restore the course this never could have happened.’’
    Now here is where it gets tricky.
    First, a title sponsor, or at least a consortium of presenting sponsors, needs to be found, formed and produce the funding. Not easy when you’re seeking at least $3.5 million, especially in a recession. Presumably for this to happen, there needs to be positive signs out of the economy by at least this summer.
    Second, the City needs to invest more money in Papago to make the muni worthy of hosting an LPGA tournament. We’re not talking Superstition Mountain conditions, no way. But to seal the deal a clubhouse with locker rooms must be built, as well as more money spent to smooth out the golf course’s rough edges, especially the bunkers, greens and desert transition areas.
  Finally, organizers and City officials need to strategize a plan to make sure the long-time charity, the Banner Health Foundation, remains high-profile and well-funded. Some of that focus — the original idea behind the tournament — was lost this year in the rush to get things ready. And with minimal funding this time around, it’s doubtful that this year’s contribution will amount to much.
    Still, everyone associated with the event last week could not have been happier about how it all turned out.
  “To put things together as fast as we did and only be about 10 to 20 percent off (at the gate) from a year ago, that’s a very good indicator how successful (the move) has been and could become,’’ said Maletis, noting that last year 159,000 turned out at Superstition Mountain. “Now we’ll meet with the mayor and City officials next week and try to get things worked out to come back here. And the sooner the better.’’
   While the gate is a good indicator of the interest in the LPGA- Papago bond, it certainly is not the only selling point for moving the tournament there permanently. As a marketing tool, the event could be a huge boon for the City as well as the course.
   An Arizona State research study in 2008 found that the tournament had a $22 million economic impact for the East Valley during its five years there. The guess here is that, given time to develop, that number could easily be doubled.
   The tournament’s impact also gives Phoenix and Papago massive global marketing in that the LPGA broadcast network on any given week reaches 150 countries worldwide. And Papago looked even better than I thought it would on The Golf Channel last week along with all that sunshine that was beamed to places like Michigan, England, Iceland and Japan.
   Incredibly, there was even a story in the weekend edition of Wall Street Journal under the headline: “Papago Gets a Shot.’’ The newspaper reported the renovation, the quick move, a little history about the tournament, and concluded that the verdict on Papago so far is that the course is “difficult but worthy, and perhaps a permanent home.’’
    There were a lot of other positive things that occurred, Maletis added, and some could not be measured by numbers of fans or money or even marketing.
   “At Superstition Mountain, because of the difficulty of getting in and out, everyone was pretty much at the tournament by noon and hung out around the clubhouse; there wasn’t much movement onto the course,’’ he pointed out. “At Papago, we’ve got mounds (elevation) on almost every hole so people can get a great view of the players, as well as a lot of trees for shade, so people tend to fan out all over the golf course. And we were amazed at the steady flow, as we had fans coming through the gate as late as 3 o’clock in the afternoon.
     “So I think all of us agree that Papago and the LPGA are a great fit, that the tournament now has a more local feel to it. The location is so central to the Valley and easy for everyone to get to that this is where we want to keep it.’’
     But where do they get $3.5 million on an annual basis for the tournament ($1.5 million for the purse, $1 million for infrastructure, $500,000 for TV, and $500,000 for fees and operations) and another $5 million for a clubhouse?
     “Obviously, we need a commitment from the City that it will keep upgrading the facility, chiefly because this is a high-profile event,’’ Maletis noted. “It can still be a muni, we’ve got no problem with that. In fact we like the feel at Papago because it makes the event more for the people – all the people.
     “As for the $3.5 million (to run the tournament), that’s a bare bones figure, really. And, remember, it’s also a figure that doesn’t leave anything for charity, which is something we must address in the future.’’
     Certainly it would be a shame if the LPGA event here goes dark next year, or if the tournament would move to another location but keep its date on the schedule, because that date is a prized one, Maletis noted. For one thing it is the first tournament held in the continental U.S. each year, and it comes the week before the LPGA’s first major champions, the Kraft Nabisco in southern California.
      “It’s happened in other places (losing tournaments), and it’s scary it could happen here, because Phoenix is a golf mecca and it needs the LPGA as much as the LPGA needs it,’’ he said. “So we need to get a title sponsor(s) in place as soon as possible, so that can get the full year’s value out of being associated with the tournament rather than coming in at the last minute and getting a month or two of recognition like happened this time.’’
      The clock is ticking and the signs are ominous in places like Hawaii, which has gone from seven professional golf tournaments on three different tours 10 years ago to possibly none by 2010. Or in Florida, which has lost three tournaments in the past year. And don’t forget about Tucson, where the LPGA played for 25 years until it went bye-bye a few years back, and The Tradition on the Champions Tour, which went belly-up right here in the Valley.
      So what do you do? Given the current state of the economy, chances are Maletis is not going to pull a title sponsor out of the hat any time soon. The suggestion here is the City of Phoenix steps up and takes control of the event, and brings in all its vendors as partners in the deal. Call it the Phoenix LPGA International and make it a showcase of the community while branding Papago and the City to the world.
    Even if the tournament only breaks even in the years to come, it’s a future where everyone wins.