Hole-in-one provides signature moment for tourney

The Las Vegas PGA Tour stop has a long and colorful history, with several “first time ever” moments.

It was the first tour stop to offer a $1 million prize purse, back in 1986, when it was called the Las Vegas Invitational. In the 1991 LVI, Chip Beck fired a record-setting 59 in the third round. In 1996, a PGA Tour newcomer named Tiger Woods won his first professional title at the LVI.

Now, the Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospitals for Children Open — in its third year of overseeing the Las Vegas tournament — has its signature moment. And it’s as indelible as John Hancock’s penmanship on the Declaration of Independence.

When Jonathan Byrd stepped up to the 17th tee Sunday, in fading twilight on the fourth hole of a three-way playoff with Cameron Percy and 2009 Shriners champ Martin Laird, he took a 6-iron and launched his ball to another “first time ever” moment in Las Vegas. A 204-yard journey ended with Byrd’s ball in the bottom of the cup, and surely with Percy and Laird — whose tee shots awaited them — flabbergasted. They both hit into the water at TPC Summerlin, and the title went to Byrd.

PGA Tour officials said it was the first time a tournament was decided by a hole-in-one on the final hole — something that tournament director Adam Sperling was still gushing about on Monday morning.

“It’s certainly fitting for Las Vegas,” Sperling said, alluding to the aforementioned history of this PGA Tour stop. “If that’s going to happen, why not here?”

In a week that began with weather woes that put a dent in some of Sperling’s hopes, the playoff finish couldn’t have been better.

“It was the perfect ending to the week,” he said.

Unbelievable, too. As Byrd was teeing up his historic shot, Sperling was on the 18th hole, preparing to make an announcement — in the event that the playoff continued — that the tournament would have to be completed Monday, due to darkness.

“I was watching on the Jumbotron, and I knew we were on a little bit of delay (with the TV feed),” he said. “Then I heard over my rules radio, ‘We’ve got a hole-in-one.’ I’m thinking, ‘You must be hearing wrong.’ And I’m looking at the Jumbotron and saying there is no way we just ended the tournament with a hole-in-one. I saw Jonathan, and his reaction was the same as ours — we just couldn’t believe it. It was just an incredible scene.

“As far as flair for the dramatic, how could there be more than to have a hole-in-one in a playoff?”

And it dodged the need for a Monday finish.

“Monday finishes are pretty anticlimactic. We were ecstatic to see it end the way it did,” Sperling said.

It capped eight days of great feats for the tournament, including a charity walkathon for disadvantaged children that drew 500 participants, and a dental clinic that treated 225 children, providing a whopping $240,000 in services. Plus, the inaugural Charley Hoffman Foundation Pro-Am, hosted by the current PGA Tour standout and former UNLV star himself, raised $75,000 for children’s organizations in the region.

And that was all before the actual tournament began.

“We had all these amazing messages sent early in the week,” Sperling said. “All these events, all week long, were all so positive. We felt like all our efforts in the community would help carry a lot of momentum into the competition.”

The event had 900 volunteers, up from 740 last year, and there were 60 new sponsors this year. The volunteers, sponsors and fans all got a satisfying result.

“Everybody deserved that finish,” Sperling said. “It was really satisfying for so many people — the volunteers, the fans, the corporate community — to share in this and feel like they were part of something really magical.”

The tremendous turnout of local PGA Tour golfers certainly helped, as well. Hoffman, of course, was on hand, joined by several more former Rebels on the PGA Tour, including Chris Riley, Chad Campbell, Bill Lunde and Warren Schutte. Plus, there were a handful of pros who either live in Las Vegas or have ties to the region, including Nick Watney, Rickie Fowler, Alex Prugh, Kevin Na, Scott Piercy and Alex Cejka.

Watney was the best of the local bunch, shooting a trio of 66s and a 67 to tie for sixth at 19-under 265, just two shots out of the playoff.

“It’s a boon for any tournament to have that type of support,” Sperling said of the strong turnout of players with local ties. “It is special to have these guys involved in the tournament. It’s phenomenal, and it allows us to do a lot of unique things. Plus, they’re all really good guys.”

Hoffman exemplified that with his charitable pro-am, held on the Monday before the tournament started.

“These guys care about more than just our tournament week,” Sperling said. “This, for Charley, is a lot more about the Monday pro-am. But he wants to be part of making this tournament great beyond Monday.

“So many people want to see this event succeed, and none more so than the UNLV and local guys in the field. You can’t ignore the fact that players recruit players. These guys want to be proud that Vegas is their event — they’ve got a vested interest in this.”

The Shriners, yet another charitable organization that is even more vested in the Las Vegas tour stop, also aims for more success — perhaps even an earlier spot on the PGA Tour calendar, making it part of the FedEx Cup qualifying events, rather than part of the Fall Series.

“Everybody in the community is willing to talk to you when you say you’re working with the Shriners,” Sperling said. “Now, what’s really beneficial is people will say, ‘Oh yeah, they had the hole-in-one in their tournament.’ People don’t want to miss that. You don’t know what you’ll miss if you’re not there.

“The Shriners are a charity willing to bring a world-class event to Las Vegas, and everybody has something to gain. And our title sponsor wants it more than anyone. We had new activations this year that are essential to make an event the size and scope you’d have as a FedEx Cup event.”

And they had an unforgettable finish, which has Sperling amped up for the 2011 tournament.

“There’s a lot to be happy for right now, and a lot to be excited about for next year.”

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