The PGA Tour event that wouldn't go away
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GREENSBORO, N.C. — It’s all good here in the Gate City. The PGA Tour event that began in 1938, and was known for years simply as “The GGO,” is thriving these days.
Eighty-one years after Sam Snead won the first tournament and first-place money of $1,200 from a $5,000 purse, what’s now known as the Wyndham Championship—but remains the GGO in the hearts and minds of most locals—handed out a check Sunday evening for $1.116 million to J.T. Poston.
Pretty good for a tournament that seemed to be a target for extinction 14 years ago. The tour was in the process of re-organizing its schedule in order to launch the FedEx Cup Playoffs starting in 2007, and the tournament’s title sponsor, Chrysler, had let it be known that it wouldn’t be renewing after its contract ran out following the 2006 tournament. Forest Oaks, the site of the event since 1977, was one of the least popular venues on tour with most players. The tour had made it clear for years that tradition and history had nothing to do with deciding a tournament’s future. Money and money did.
And so, the tournament that Snead had won eight times, seemed likely to go the way of the Kemper Open and the Westchester Classic under the new tour setup.
Mark Brazil had been tournament director in Greensboro since 2001. He was 37 at the time and understood everything that was working against the event when Steve Mitchem, a friend who was a member at Sedgefield Country Club, suggested that Brazil take a look at Sedgefield and think about moving the tournament back there.
Sedgefield had a great history. It was a Donald Ross design that had been founded in 1926 and had been one of the GGO’s two original sites—along with Starmount Forest Country Club. It had become the tournament’s lone host for 16 years, from 1961 to 1976. It was also at Sedgefield, in 1953, that the Atlantic Coast Conference—seven schools breaking off from the old Southern Conference—was formed. There’s a plaque in the clubhouse lobby that is a reminder of that moment in history.
Brazil and his operations director, Bobby Powell, toured the course with Mitchem and the club’s golf staff.
“Mostly we looked at the back nine because that was where we had to find corporate space,” Brazil said last week. “We asked questions about whether this tree could be moved or something could be a spot to put a tent, things like that. Every answer was, ‘Yes.’ There was no question about the quality of the golf course. I became convinced that if we were to survive, we had to move to Sedgefield.”
Finding a better venue was certainly a good idea, but it wasn’t the tour’s No. 1 priority. Doing the networking almost every tournament director was doing back in 2005, Brazil began to hear there was a tentative tour schedule floating that either had Greensboro on the fall schedule (which back then wasn’t part of he new FedEx Cup playoffs) or gone completely.
“I knew a fall date wouldn’t work for our board of directors,” Brazil said. “We needed to get in front of the tour to plead our case.”
That wasn’t easy. According to Brazil, Greensboro’s relationship with those at the top of the tour hierarchy was “about a D-minus.” Brazil knew some of the business-affairs people in Ponte Vedra Beach, but they weren’t going to be making any decisions on the fate of his event.
Finally, in October, Brazil got to meet with the tour’s leaders. He brought Bobby Long with him. Long was chairman of the Piedmont Triad Charitable Foundation and had recently retired at age 59 after making millions in the insurance business.
The tour listened to their pitch and finally made a take-it-or-leave-it offer: You can have the last slot before we begin the playoffs in August. There was one more thing: The tour needed a $25 million letter-of-credit to guarantee purses for five years after Chrysler departed. Oh, and the Greensboro folks had lots of time to round up the money: four days.
The following Monday, Brazil sent a fax to the tour accepting the new date along with a $25 million letter-of-credit guaranteed by Long. The GGO was still alive—barely.
The August date seemed less-than-ideal. Greensboro is hot at best that time of year, brutally hot quite often. And there were the summer thunderstorms that threatened to soak the golf course.
There was, however, a hidden benefit: Even though the tournament would follow the PGA Championship, there would be players—some of them big names—who would need to play their way into the playoffs in that final week. One of those who fell into that category was Ernie Els, who found himself 126th on the money list in 2011 and entered Greensboro, calling it “the last-chance saloon.” Padraig Harrington, like Els a multiple-major champion, was 130th on the list and also came to Greensboro.
In 2015, Tiger Woods showed up, trying desperately to get into the playoffs. Watched by massive crowds, he contended for three days, starting Sunday in fourth place. But he hurt his hip during the final round, shot an even-par 70 and fell to a tie for 10th.
Even after being granted a stay-of-execution, the tournament needed a title sponsor. Enter Wyndham. Long recruited and befriended CEO Steve Holmes, and Wyndham signed on to replace Chrysler beginning in 2007—the last year the tournament was played at Forest Oaks.
Like many of today’s tour sponsors, Wyndham insisted that Greensboro be removed from the tournament’s name so that the event would have to be referred to by its corporate name. The tour does this often, which can create awkward moments when, for example, people will refer to Snead as an “eight-time winner of the Wyndham Championship.” Snead’s last win in Greensboro was in 1965. Wyndham came into existence in 1981.
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Even so, the relationship between Wyndham and Greensboro has been a huge success. The company signed a new 10-year contract in 2015 and this year added the Wyndham Rewards Top Ten, a regular-season bonus package of $10 million to the top 10 players on the regular-season FedEx Cup points list. The hope was that the money would create an added incentive for players to come to Greensboro to try to get into the top 10—the winner receives $2 million and the money slides to the 10th-place finisher receiving $500,000.
The first year was, at best, a mixed success. Brooks Koepka wrapped up first place prior to Greensboro, and Rory McIlroy and Matt Kuchar had clinched the next two spots. Only one top-10 player—Paul Casey in eighth place—played Greensboro although the tour and Wyndham noted that a total of nine players entered with a chance to finish in the top 10. The incentive of winning an extra $500,000 isn’t what it used to be on a tour where 105 players had won more than $1 million in earnings for the year going into Greensboro.
Next year may be better because of yet another schedule change. FedEx wasn’t pleased with its new date this year for Memphis; it now also hosts a WGC event in addition to sponsoring the Playoffs, but that tournament was slotted right after the Open Championship. Next year, Memphis will come in a sweet spot: the second week of the three between the U.S. Open and the Open Championship. The tournament in Minnesota now will follow the Open Championship, then will come the Olympics and then Wyndham. Some players may opt to take the week off following the tournament at Royal St. George’s and, if they aren’t playing the Olympics, might want to play Greensboro.
In all, it’s pretty good to be the Wyndham Championship right now. The “last-chance saloon” date has helped create a solid field year in and year out. Wyndham, Brazil and the tour are all pals. Former PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem came and played in the pro-am before he retired, and this year commissioner Jay Monahan came and played in Long’s group on Wednesday.
“I’d say we’ve gone from a D-minus to an A-plus-plus in our relationship with the tour,” Brazil said. “Most of that is because of Bobby [Long]. But a lot of hard work has gone into it for everyone.”
The work has paid off. Even if the words will never be spoken on television, the GGO lives. Somewhere, Snead is smiling.
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