THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. - Larry Thiel has been around professional golf for more than 40 years and his experience running tournaments includes The Memorial for Jack Nicklaus and, most recently, The International. His decades around the game also means that he remembers when the Bob Hope Classic was one of the top tournaments on tour, attracting the likes of Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer and routinely garnering the best TV ratings this side of the Masters. Thiel's charge now is to bring that luster back to the Hope as tournament chairman. To hear him tell the story, that effort is well under way.
"Did we not have a sponsor the last two years? Yes," Thiel said Wednesday over breakfast at a deli near Sherwood CC, site of this week's Chevron World Challenge. "Will we not have a sponsor in 2011? Yes," Thiel added, before concluding emphatically, "But we still gave $1.5 million to charity each of those years and I know we will have a sponsor the next year." The Hope has been around for 52 years and since 1960 has contributed nearly $50 million to Coachella Valley charities. "I like our chances for the future," Thiel says. "It is easier to turn this tournament around than it would be to stand around and watch it get buried."
The Bob Hope has become a bit of a poster boy for embattled tournaments. It lost Chrysler as a sponsor when the recession kicked in -- although it's a good guess the automaker left behind a nice check to buy its way out of the contract -- and in recent years it has had trouble getting top players. This year, the highest-ranked player in the field was Mike Weir, who was outside the top 30 on the previous year's money list. And the 2011 event has already made the radar screen because Phil Mickelson has decided to play in Abu Dhabi that week, clearly following the lure of an appearance fee. But, according to Thiel, the Hope expects to have nine of the top 25 from the 2010 PGA Tour money list, including No. 1 Matt Kuchar, and about two-dozen tournaments winners from this past season in the field.
That's good news for the PGA Tour, which according to those in the know, is under pressure to show a TV ratings improvement in the first quarter of the year, before negotiations with the networks begin or a contract that will replace the one that expires at the end of 2012. Word is that commissioner Tim Finchen has reached out to Tiger Woods to play more often early in the year than he has in the past, although all indications are that Woods will make his 2011 debut at Torrey Pines, after the Hope, as has been his case in recent years.
Part of the lure Thiel is making to get more top players to the Hope is to improve the amenities for them and their families and to encourage the amateurs to improve pace-of-play in the multi-day pro-am event. The early business numbers are also encouraging, says Thiel. The pro-am is sold out in packages that start at $12,000 a head and go to $25,000. There are 29 new pages of ads in the tournament program and the number of top-level sponsors -- those paying more than $100,000 each -- has grown from 11 to 30.
"Last year people were writing about how No. 36 on the money list was our top player and were forecasting the demise of the Hope," says Thiel. "That won't happen, not on my watch. I know I can turn this around. We will never walk away from Bob Hope," he says by way of assuring the legendary comedian's name will always remain in the title of the tournament.
Thiel points out that the Hope's best days occurred when it was the first tournament of the year on the tour schedule. Conventional wisdom says that won't happen again, but then again with a new TV contract kicking in for the 2013 season, now is the time for everyone to start thinking outside the box and re-imagining the PGA Tour schedule. When those conversations begin in earnest, it seems as if in Thiel the Bob Hope Classic will have an aggressive and imaginative person at the bargaining table.
-*- Ron Sirak *