EVIAN-LES-BAINS, France -- The Ginn Tribute which, along with the Ginn Open, has a $2.6 million purse, the richest of any U.S.-based LPGA event except the U.S. Women's Open, will not return in 2009, multiple sources told Golf World. While neither the LPGA nor Ginn would confirm the demise of the Tribute, which is played at RiverTowne CC near Charleston, S.C., neither expressed optimism about its future.
"The [Ginn sur Mer] Classic [on the PGA Tour], the [Ginn] Championship [on the Champions Tour] and the Ginn Open are happening this year and next," said Ginn spokesman Ryan Julison. "After we get past the Ginn Open we don't know what the future holds."
The Ginn Open is played in April and the Ginn Tribute comes after it, in May. Sources involved in broadcasting, tournament ownership and the LPGA said Ginn has pulled the plug on the Charleston event. The uncertainty expressed about the future after the Ginn Open also raises questions about the existence of all the Ginn tournaments after 2009.
"We have all those tournaments and no sponsors and in this economy it's like a perfect storm," Julison said. Ginn, which does its business in real estate, the hardest-hit sector in the downturn of the American economy, is said by insiders familiar with the cost of running tournaments to be on the hook for $25 million annually for the four events, one of the most ambitious investments by any company in tournament sponsorship. Late last summer, Robert Gidel, an expert operations man, was brought by investors to run the day-to-day business of the Ginn Company with Bobby Ginn remaining chairman and CEO.
"If I had to handicap the situation right now I would say that it is less than 50-50 that the Ginn Tribute will happen in 2009," LPGA commissioner Carolyn Bivens told Golf World at the Evian Masters. "That said, we will have a tournament to replace it."
Ginn has contractual obligations both to the LPGA and to NBC, which broadcasts the Ginn Tribute, for two more years. "We're having ongoing conversations with the Ginn organization and we hope to work things out amicably," Bivens said. "We also hope our broadcast partners, in this case NBC, are respected."
Annika Sorenstam, who runs her Annika Golf Academy out of the Ginn Reunion Resort near Orlando, where the Ginn Open is played, hosts the Ginn Tribute. One possibility is the Ginn Open would become the Ginn Tribute Hosted by Annika. Sorenstam said she was unaware of the future of the Ginn Tribute.
The loss of the Ginn Tribute comes within a difficult economic climate. Earlier this year, Safeway pulled out of its LPGA event near Phoenix and a replacement has yet to be found, though a chance remains the LPGA may run the event itself, at least for the short term. That stop has been on the tour since 1980.
And earlier this month talks between the LPGA and the Fields Open in Hawaii, which has been on the schedule since 2006, ended. The contract with the SemGroup Championship in Oklahoma expired this year and the chances of a renewal were clouded by an SEC investigation of SemGroup, an energy company, following a declaration of bankruptcy by its parent company. The Tulsa event began in 2001.
One insider involved in the Tournament Owners Association said that of the four endangered tournaments, Phoenix was the most likely to survive and the Fields Open the least likely. Next year is an important one for the LPGA as about one-third of its tournament contracts expire, higher sanctioning fees go into effect and television contracts with ESPN and Golf Channel expire.
"The single most-important thing the LPGA needs is better TV exposure," said one tournament owner, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "It's a highly entertaining product and a great value to for sponsors. The more people see it, the more they will realize that."
-- Ron Sirak