Shriners throw fez in ring for PGA Tour spring date

Gary Dunwoody is loony in a good way. He’s the guy who opens his remarks at a news conference by saying he’s happy to be in Las Vegas, because when you’re from Arkansas, you’re happy to be anywhere but there. He wears one of those “Looks good on you, though …” fez hats.

He’s the tough-act-to-follow guy on a dais.

He’s also a major reason Las Vegas could soon host a PGA Tour event as part of the FedEx Cup schedule, a tournament where the likelihood of Tiger Woods playing goes from fantasy to maybe.

Woods coming to your event, despite his recent struggles, is like a baseball team with too many quality middle infielders. It’s a good problem to have.

It was thought those at the Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospitals for Children Open might have owned such logistical challenges this year, but then Woods picked the Frys.com Open in Northern California as the Fall Series event he will play.

This was sort of a surprise, given Woods’ fondness for partying in Las Vegas and the fact we’re far closer to the nearest Perkins Restaurant than L.A.

“It would have been huge to get him,” said Dunwoody, chairman of the tournament here, with play running Sept. 29 through Oct. 2 at TPC Summerlin. “Huge … huge. Having him would have been great for attendance and media exposure. It can probably be as much distraction as asset, but it’s not a bad distraction.”

They wanted Woods. Badly. Everyone around TPC Summerlin did. You don’t host a Fall Series event believing Woods or Phil Mickelson would still be playing in a given year when your tournament tees off. This is a unique case in that Woods has altered his schedule in trying to recover from injuries and re-discover his game. They wanted him. They dreamed about it.

But in a moment of disappointment appears a potentially brighter long-term opportunity.

Shriners Hospitals for Children, of which there are few if any better organizations acting as title sponsors of sporting events nationally, was approached this year about sponsoring the Transitions Championship, a FedEx event played in early March in Tampa, Fla., home to the national headquarters of Shriners Hospitals.

The Shriners, whose board of directors voted unanimously in 2010 to commit the additional millions it takes to sponsor such a tournament, turned the PGA down … this time.

“Las Vegas is where we want to be,” said Dunwoody, a member of the Shriners Board of Trustees. “We are committed to this city and community. I am convinced we’re going to be a FedEx Cup tournament here, hopefully in 2013. We’re committed as a board to making that happen. Las Vegas is a town that expects the biggest and best, and that’s what a FedEx event would give it. It gets you to another level.”

Golf lacks today the star power Woods brought when he dominated the weekly fields, but the PGA Tour also just signed its longest network television deal in the sport’s history. There is interest, and yet also a continuing need for title sponsors in dreadful economic times.

You can’t predict what a PGA Tour schedule would resemble in 2013, and those in Las Vegas certainly couldn’t forecast a week’s worth of weather in the spring, when a FedEx event here would likely take place.

But you jump at the chance regardless, willing to walk to PGA Tour headquarters in Florida to accept such an opportunity, Bermuda grass bouncing back from a chilly winter here or not be damned.

Shriners Hospitals is signed with the Timberlake tournament through 2012, and it’s not crazy to begin connecting dots that could have the sponsor add some zeroes to the paycheck for a FedEx event the following spring.

It would be going from Triple-A to the majors, from the D-League to the NBA, from a Perkins Restaurant to Morton’s Steakhouse, from dreaming of Woods playing your event to owning a legitimate chance of getting him.

“We would have to get the right date, but if you get the title sponsor, all the other challenges are good ones to have,” said Adam Sperling, tournament director for the Timberlake event. “We weren’t talking to vendors or looking for additional parking in thinking (Woods might play here this year). I never like to speculate on speculation. If you spend too much time focusing on the hypothetical, you take your eye off what you have to do.

“The only thing we can control is making every year better than the previous. I think we’ve done that the last few years, and I know we’ll do it this year.”

We will leave, then, the speculation to Dunwoody. Something tells me he’s just loony enough — and smart enough — to pull it off.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 3 to 5 p.m. Monday and Thursday on “Monsters of the Midday,” Fox Sports Radio 920 AM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.

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