Golf tournaments are falling all around us |

Golf tournaments are falling all around us

Column by Steve Yingling, Tribune sports editor

We should be thankful for what we have here on the South Shore. Our largest sporting event of the year, the American Century Celebrity Golf Championship, is alive, healthy and all signs are pointing to a long lifespan.

But go west on U.S. Highway 50 to Serrano Country Club and northeast on Highway 395 to Montreux Golf & Country Club, and you’ll find a couple of tournaments that are either dead or on life support.

With large corporations continuing to tighten their budgets and spend less following terrorist attacks in New York, some sports have been impacted. But the affordable Celebrity Players Tour — especially the championship — remains very appealing to NBC and sponsors.

“We’ve seen some of the problems of the ladies’ and senior tours because of what has happened to the economy since 9-11,” said former Miami Dolphins defensive back Dick Anderson. “When you’re talking about spending $7 million for a PGA Tour event or $2.5 to $5 million for a Senior Tour event, you can do a celebrity tournament for $500,000 to a $1 million, and it’s good entertainment.”

The Gold Rush Classic was a Senior PGA Tour casualty following Tom Kite’s victory in 2001. Raley’s sponsored the event for a majority of the time it spent between Rancho Murieta and Serrano. But the 15-year-old tournament died last year after Sacramento Kings owners Joe and Gavin Maloof kept it going with their own money while officials frantically searched for a title sponsor.

That is the same fate that likely awaits the Reno-Tahoe Open. Seeking a title sponsor since day one, one of the PGA players’ favorite venues is about to become available to club members in late August again.

The 4-year-old tournament has had the misfortune of being paired on Aug. 22-25 with the NEC Invitational World Championships, which attracts the top 40 players in the world.

Consequently, Reno is left with champions like Notah Begay and John Cook. Outstanding professional golfers, but men who can’t rescue a tournament the way Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson can. Stars, whose presence make CEOs reach for their checkbooks and CBS and NBC embark in bidding wars for television rights.

“The days of a CEO saying, ‘I like golf, so I’ll spend $30 million’ — those days are gone,” RTO Tournament Director Jim Kline told the Associated Press earlier this month.

“It’s not like they don’t have the money or had a necessarily bad year.

They just are not spending money. People are just in a weird mood. It’s kind of got people down.”

So what does Tahoe have that Reno and Sacramento don’t? For one, Michael Jordan. Two, Charles Barkley and thee, John Elway. The appeal of getting an arm’s length away from these superstars can’t be matched by any other sporting event in world.

Golf allows the stars to remain competitive in retirement, and the pull of Lake Tahoe, the casinos and a nationally-televised celebrity championship keeps them coming back.

“We’re a lot more fan friendly than the other tours,” Anderson said.

With the exception of St. Louis Rams running back Marshall Faulk and a few other misguided players from time to time, the celebrities give their fans a good show, signing autographs and memorabilia, posing for pictures and interacting with them during tournament play.

Do you think Tiger Woods or Hale Irwin would have amused the crowd like former major league pitcher Rick Rhoden did on the 16th hole of the final round of the championship on Sunday?

Trailing leader Dan Quinn by four shots, Rhoden pulled his tee shot into the rough and behind a pine tree on the par-5 hole. With a group on the green ahead, actor Jack Wagner asked Rhoden if he was waiting for the green to clear.

“I shouldn’t be?” Rhoden told a pack of spectators along the ropes. “My options don’t look too good from here, do they?”

Or how about Wagner a third of the way into Sunday’s final round when his 20-foot birdie attempt grazed the cup?

“That’s so unfair of you,” said Wagner, turning his visor sideways as he was yelling at his ball.

A hole later, fans got to see the other side of the temperamental Wagner. After striking his approach off a tree and into cluster of pines, Wagner had no shot to the green. He chipped out into the fairway and then smacked his iron on a pole that held up a gallery rope.

If you watch them play golf long enough, you get a feel for what the celebrities are really like. And that’s entertainment.

Naturally, American Century knows a good investment when it sees one. One of America’s leading investment managers agreed last year to sponsor the championship through 2005, with an option to serve as title sponsor through 2007.

Now that’s security.

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