The PGA Champions Tour’s debut in Madison is still more than a year away, but that didn’t prevent PGA commissioner Tim Finchem from casting an optimistic gaze into its future.
The first American Family Insurance Championship will be played at University Ridge Golf Course next June 24-26. The event, for PGA players 50 and older, is still very much in the formative stages, but Finchem said its primary objective is about growing the brand.
In the midst of announcing a three-year agreement to play the Senior Tour event at the 18-hole University of Wisconsin layout on Madison’s Far West Side — American Family has an option for a fourth year — Finchem said “now the only real challenge ahead of us is to do all the little things you do to build a good tournament.”
Finchem said the next 12 months and beyond will be about cultivating more business sponsors and getting local civic leaders, tourism officials and the state’s golf community organized to embrace another signature tournament.
Three other high-profile pro golf events will be held in Wisconsin over the next five years. The PGA Championship will be played Aug. 13 -16 at Whistling Straits in Kohler. In 2017, the U.S. Open will be held at Erin Hills in Hartford. In 2020, the Ryder Cup — a premier international event played on American soil every four years — will be played at Whistling Straits.
“The hallmark of a good tournament is it gets better every year,” Finchem said.
How to begin, though?
The American Family Insurance Championship already has a popular host in PGA Tour pro Steve Stricker, and prominent local sponsors in American Family Insurance and the UW Athletic Department.
Jim Buchheim, the vice president for communications at American Family, said last week the No. 1 priority at the moment is to hire two to three individuals that will be “100 percent focused on this event.”
That team will handle everything from soliciting corporate sponsorships and marketing to securing volunteers and participants for the two-day pro-am that kicks off the event next June 22-23.
Bucheim said the hope is to have the full-time crew in place by next month, at which time they can start digesting the 400-page tournament guide published and forwarded by the PGA.
“It’s daunting when you open it for the first time,” he said.
Ken Muth, the director of media relations for American Family, declined to say how much the company is paying to sponsor the event.
Brian Lucas, the communications director for the UW Athletic Department, said UW officials will work with American Family and the PGA to stage the tournament. Specific roles have not yet been defined.
A model in Des Moines
A good template for Madison organizers and fans alike is the Champions Tour event that has become a fixture in another Midwestern state capitol.
The Principal Charity Classic was played last weekend in Des Moines, Iowa. The tournament, won by Mark Calcavecchia, drew a record crowd of 76,363 over its three days, as well as a record number of corporate sponsorships (350).
The Des Moines event subsequently received a guarantee for 2016, its fifth extension since 2007. It has endured despite multiple corporate sponsors and course sites since its debut in 2001.
Mark Williams, the director of communications for the Champions Tour, said it’s reasonable to draw parallels to Des Moines and Madison given their populations — between 200,000 and 240,000 – and their civic reputations.
“It’s a similar community and it’s an event that the community really gets behind because it’s one of the bigger events in town,” Williams said.
Moreover, Williams said the attendance totals in Des Moines “would be a goal for sure” for those putting together the ticket packages here. The Principal Charity Classic had a series of options, including a $15 ticket good for any one day of the tournament, $40 for a weekend pass and a 10-pack that had 10 one-day, any-day tickets.
Buchheim said the cost of attending the American Family Championship hasn’t been determined, but “we intend to build the price of parking into the overall ticket price.”
Volunteers are a key to the success of these tournaments. Williams said the more the merrier, but 800 to 1,000 are typically needed. The Des Moines tournament set a record with 1,248 volunteers in 2014.
Williams said other Champions Tour venues have unique logistical problems to address and acknowledged the Madison event will be no different.
University Ridge has very limited parking and the two main access roads, Highway M and Highway PD, are single lanes in either direction and are rough and heavily traveled.
When UW has hosted NCAA cross country regional meets at University Ridge the past three years — its Thomas Zimmer running course is adjacent to the golf layout — shuttles from a variety of nearby parking areas have been used to transport spectators to the grounds.
Using research data from other Champions Tour sites, Williams said an estimated economic impact of $10 million to $15 million for the Madison area is “reasonably accurate.” Organizers of the Des Moines tournament said its approximate economic impact in 2014 was $20.8 million.
For reference, the WIAA boys state basketball tournament at the Kohl Center ($6 million) and the Ironman Wisconsin triathlon ($4.3 million) are the top annual revenue-generators for Madison, according to data from the Greater Madison Area Convention and Visitor’s Bureau/Madison Area Sports Commission.
A big boost from Stricker
Finchem said the genial Stricker, a 12-time PGA Tour champion who will lend his name to the new event even though he won’t be able to play in it until he turns 50 in 2017, will help attract well-known names on the Senior Tour to Madison.
Fred Couples, Bernhard Langer, Davis Love III, Mark O’Meara, Curtis Strange and Tom Watson are among the seniors who have won at least one of the four major tournaments — the British Open, Masters, PGA, U.S. Open — while the likes of John Daly and Jose-Maria Olazabal will be eligible at this time next year.
Stricker, a native of Edgerton who lives in Madison, will get promotional help from two other Madisonians: current PGA Tour player Jerry Kelly and two-time U.S. Open champion Andy North.
Major golf tournaments aren’t new to Wisconsin. Whistling Straits was the site of the PGA Championship in 2004 and ’10 as well as the U.S. Senior Open in ’07.
But ever since Milwaukee lost its PGA Tour event in 2009 — the Greater Milwaukee Open/U.S. Bank Open was a Tour regular for 42 years — a replacement has been sought that will provide an annual draw as opposed to a one-time tournament.
Interest in the tournament, locally and nationally, is expected to be strong for several reasons.
One is the number of familiar names that make up the potential field. “(Stricker) is a big drawing card as far as the players are concerned,” said David Marr of the Golf Channel, which will televise the event.
Another key element is the nature of golf fans not only in the area, but the Midwest. Finchem said the middle of the U.S. is one of the prime pulse points for attendance and viewership.
“If you draw a line from here up to around Minnesota and over to Ohio, that’s the most intense fan base — the Upper Midwest,” he said.
“I don’t know whether that’s pent-up demand from the winter or whatever. It’s where our highest ratings are. Where when we do a tournament we get great crowds on any tour.”
Another draw is the new venue — not only the course, but the area as well. Williams said that while the competitive juices will certainly flow from the participants when the tournament begins, down time will likely be spent with entourages eager to do “touristy things.”
“A lot of guys have never been to Madison, so they’re looking forward to it,” he said.
Finchem said every event on his watch is driven by economic impact and how local charities benefit. To that end, proceeds from this new project will go to the Steve Stricker American Family Insurance Foundation and the American Family Children’s Hospital.
Buchheim said American Family has set an initial goal of raising $500,000 for charities. He cited the success of the Des Moines tournament, which has topped $1 million in each of the past three years, as an objective.
“It’s all about giving back,” Stricker said, “and that’s why I think this event is going to be so important and so exciting for the community to be a part of.”