Local PGA event shoots for spring spot in schedule

In the wake of the recession, golf has taken a huge hit in corporate sponsorship.

Longtime supporters of the PGA Tour such as Buick have withdrawn their participation. Ten tournaments will see their contracts expire in 2010. Some events may be able to retain partial sponsorship, while others are bracing for having to find someone else to fill the financial breach or risk folding.

In Las Vegas, where the economic downturn has had a major impact, this is not bad news. At least when it comes to the Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospitals for Children Open. The tournament, which has been part of the tour’s Fall Series, may benefit from someone else’s misfortune and get the opportunity to move into the FedEx Cup Series in the spring of 2011.

The Shriners, who help thousands of children at no charge, don’t want to think in those terms. But they want to get the most out of their investment, which runs through 2012. A move to the spring would maximize exposure and increase the amount of money raised, all of which goes back to the kids.

This year’s event, which begins Thursday at TPC Summerlin with a purse of $4.2 million, marks the 27th consecutive year Las Vegas has played host to the PGA Tour. The Shriners want to keep it going beyond 2012.

“We believe the future for this event is in the spring,” said Gary Dunwoody, who oversees the event for the Shriners. “This tournament has been great for us so far. We’ve seen an increase of gifts totaling over $9 million as a result of the tournament.”

According to Rick George, chief of operations for the PGA Tour, the opportunity for Las Vegas to move from the fall is a realistic possibility.

“I think the Shriners have done a great job of building and growing the tournament, and I know their desire to be part of the FedEx Cup,” George said. “It can’t happen in 2010, but there will be opportunities in 2011, and should a date become available and the time works, we would consider a change for Las Vegas.”

Dunwoody said a move to the FedEx Series would require an additional and sizable financial commitment from the Shriners, probably around $4 million. But Dunwoody said it would be a worthwhile investment because the possibility of getting Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson to return to Las Vegas — along with the purse increase boosting the quality of the field — would generate more fans and sponsorships.

“It would make good business sense,” Dunwoody said.

Tournament chairman Gary Davis agrees. He has had ongoing discussions with PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem about moving from the fall to the spring. Davis said it’s a “chicken-and-the-egg” argument.

“The PGA Tour says we have a good event, but they want to see more spectators,” Davis said. “I told them, ‘You get me Tiger Woods and I’ll bring out the fans.’ We have a very strong field, but the key to the future success of the tournament is moving it to the spring when everyone’s trying to accumulate (FedEx Cup) points.”

Davis said even if the tour agrees to move the Las Vegas tournament to earlier in the year, a lot would have to happen to make it work. TPC Summerlin, the home course for the event, would have to be prepared on short notice after next year’s tournament. There would be a quick turnaround to line up sponsors and sell tickets. Timberlake, the tournament’s host, would have to clear his busy schedule to be able to participate.

“There’s a lot of moving parts to making a change like this,” Davis said. “You want to move, but it has to make sense and it has to fit.”

Davis said May would be the ideal time to play in Las Vegas. But the tour is in Texas for almost the entire month, and it’s unlikely San Antonio, Dallas and Fort Worth are going to give up their dates.

Two big events are played before the Texas swing — the Players Championship in Florida at the beginning of May and the Memorial, Jack Nicklaus’ event in Ohio, in the first week of June. After that, the weather is too hot for a golf tournament in Las Vegas.

A more likely scenario would be January or February when the tour is on the West Coast. George said the tour likes to maintain its geographical boundaries as it moves around the country, and crisscrossing to hold events is not the optimum way to schedule. It might be too cold to play at that time of the year, but the Shriners might have to accept what’s available or risk remaining in the Fall Series.

Still, Davis said he thinks the Shriners eventually will get their wish.

“I’m very confident that as long as we keep moving forward, we’ll be playing in the spring,” he said.

Contact reporter Steve Carp at scarp@ reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2913.

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