DOMINICAN DANDY

In a tough economy, one would think that the Champions tour might be at risk. But at Punta Espada the sprightly seniors showed once again that their enterprise is forever young
April 06, 2009

LAST FRIDAY, hisone-year anniversary on the Champions tour, Joey Sindelar signed his scorecard,his ball, a second ball, his visor, other people's visors and anything elsethat passed across his sunburned face at Punta Espada Golf Club in theDominican Republic. ¬∂ No tour does up-close-and-personal like the Champions,with its two weekly pro-ams, dinner parties, quirky personalities and overallgood cheer. ¬∂ On the Tuesday night before the start of the Cap CanaChampionship—fast becoming a favorite Champions tour event in only its secondplaying—65 of the 78 players in the field crashed the pro-am draw party at theresort's oceanfront Blue Marlin restaurant. On Friday night the tour had NCAAbasketball Sweet 16 coverage piped into the resort's Love Bar, where playersmingled with resort guests over hamburgers and various libations. More than oneplayer made this keen observation during the week: You don't see this on thekids' tour.

The kids' tour, ofcourse, has Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, which means that the 50-and-overset has to work a little harder to stay viable in these uncertain economictimes.

"I wouldgather that unless this turns into the Great Depression, the PGA Tour sensesthat [the Champions tour] is an important tool," says Sindelar, who wouldfinish fourth, two shots behind winner Keith Fergus. "We have fun with ouramateur playing partners. For a lot of people who watch golf, we're the onesthey watched—the Prices, the Normans, the O'Mearas. But I also think that theregular Tour understands that the guys are counting on this, on the chance tobe a rookie again, to be competitive again and to make some nice money andfinish it off. I would think that, for those reasons, there would be a bigfight before this went away."

The worseningeconomy—in golf and elsewhere—is what prompted 48-year-old Mark Calcavecchia towonder aloud several weeks ago if the Champions tour will still be thrivingwhen he turns 50 a year from June. He has a right to be concerned. Afterholding 28 official events with a total purse of $51.2 million in 2005, theChampions tour set a record with a $55.2 million total purse in 29 events lastyear. Those figures have tumbled this year, to 25 events and $48.9 million intotal purses after the Ginn Company in January peremptorily dropped itssponsorship of the 2009 Ginn Championship.

"[Calcavecchia] has every reason to be worried, as he should have everyreason to be worried about the PGA Tour, the NFL, NASCAR, whatever," saysMike Stevens, the president of the Champions tour. "Businesses are makingvery difficult decisions, and individuals are making difficult decisions aboutwhether they want to spend money on a pro-am or keep it in a savings account.This is the fourth economic downturn in my career in golf, and this is by farthe most serious. What has a tendency to happen, though, is that companies lookto relationships, and relationships sustain business. You go to those peopleyou have the best relationships with, with the hopes of continuing thebusiness."

While PGA Tourcommissioner Tim Finchem has been encouraging players to do what they can togrow the game—being accessible, strengthening bonds with sponsors, playing moreoften—"those are things we've been doing [on the Champions tour] for along, long time and have had great success with them," Stevens says.

He cited as anexample the Toshiba Classic in Newport Beach, Calif., where Stevens invited twoexecutives from Mitsubishi Electric (which sponsors the tour's season opener)to dine with him. Stevens asked Tom Kite, Loren Roberts and Jeff Sluman if theywould join them.

"They said, Ofcourse we will," Stevens said. "I didn't have to pay them. I didn'thave to negotiate with an agent. They just understood."

Says Sluman,"Not throwing anyone under the bus on the other Tour, but it's totallydifferent here. I believe that when Mike says everybody kind of gets it outhere, they do. Some guys on the other Tour don't."

Stevens and mostof his players say that the Champions tour operates fine with a schedule of 25to 30 events, claiming that more than 30 would dilute the strength of thefields. Anything below 25, however, would be a concern, he says.

To that end,Stevens points to Cap Cana as a blueprint for future forays into theinternational market for the Champions tour. Though the tour recently haltednegotiations to hold tournaments in Los Cabos, Mexico, and Calgary, Alberta,Stevens says Cap Cana is the inspiration behind the tour's possible expansioninto South Korea, where Jack Nicklaus is involved in a design project thatcould become part of a new business hub in the Pacific Rim. (Nicklaus alsodesigned Cap Cana's Punta Espada.)

"If wewouldn't have had the success here last year in Cap Cana, it would have madetrying to do the initiative in Korea that much more difficult," saysStevens.

This year at CapCana, Greg Norman's presence created the biggest buzz, but it was a mixedblessing. Even as he drew hundreds to his gallery in his run-up to next week'sMasters, the Cap Cana Championship was the 54-year-old Norman's first nonmajorstart on the Champions tour, and it does not sound as if he will be grindingout there anytime soon.

"People stillwant to come out and see some of the great names, but it's a bit of anadjustment for me," Norman said after opening with rounds of 73 and 72. Hewould go on to finish 36th, 12 shots behind Fergus. "I'm not used to seeinggolf carts rolling down the middle of the fairway. It's a bit of an adjustmentseeing the tees so far up the hole, it doesn't play the way you practiced it.But this has been the first one I've played, so I have to make some adjustmentssomewhere along the line. I think the viability of the [Champions tour] isgoing to be O.K. They might have some problems going forward, but I don't thinkyou'll see them lose it."

Norman wouldn'tcommit to more appearances on the Champions tour other than coming out "indribs and drabs." But even with no Tiger and dribs and drabs of Shark, theChampions tour has survived and even thrived for nearly 30 years. Televisionratings for the tour on Golf Channel are up in '09, and the channel's seniorvice president of programming, Tom Stathakes, says the cooperation, personalityand accessibility of Champions tour players have been huge in an economicdownturn.

During GolfChannel's Cap Cana coverage, in a nod to the Dominican flavor of the week, theplayers even offered their pick of who's the better baseball player, AlbertPujols or Manny Ramirez. (The Cardinals' slugger prevailed.)

It was one moreexample of golfers giving back during competition. No one, as Sindelar said,has a crystal ball and knows what the future of any sport looks like. Views ofthe swirling Caribbean would have to do.

NEWS & NOTES

"We always liked the 1st tee at Castle Pines, butthis might be better. From the top of the tee you can't help but go, 'Oh, mygosh!'"
—JOEY SINDELAR, on the breathtaking 2nd hole at Punta Espada

REGAL EAGLE

With his ball flying toward Punta Espada's 17th greenon Sunday at the Cap Cana Championship, Keith Fergus turned to his caddie,Terry Engleman, for a quick word.

"Terry," Fergus said, "this is going to begood." Neither knew how good. Fergus's ball—launched with a sand wedge fromthe rough 95 yards away—landed five feet past the cup, spun back and dropped infor an eagle 2 that vaulted him to a one-shot victory over Mark O'Meara andAndy Bean. Fergus, who played the last seven holes in six under for afinal-round 67, it was the second Champions tour win, and it kept O'Mearawinless in 35 starts on the senior circuit.

O'Meara, who shot 68, was clearly stung. Earlier thismonth he finished a shot back of Eduardo Romero at the Toshiba Classic."I'm not quite all the way there yet," said O'Meara, who will play inthe Masters, which he won in 1998. "The confidence is starting to comearound with all these finishes, but at this stage in my life, I want towin."

Like Father, Like Son

Victor García, best known as Sergio's dad, cut adashing figure in his first Champions tour start in five years. That is wherethe good news ends. García opened with rounds of 80 and 77 before closing withan 82 to finish last (in a field of 78) at the Cap Cana Championship. Dressedin white during his opening round, García might have been mistaken for his sonwhen he stepped into the bunker at the par-4 18th hole. His setup to the balland his swing looked nearly identical to those of the No. 3-ranked player inthe world. (Victor, a club pro in Castellon, Spain, taught Sergio the game.)Alas, García left the sand shot well short, bogeyed the hole and later admittedto feeling some nerves. "Un poquito nervioso [a little nervous]," hesaid.

Nevertheless, "I'm enjoying being here, everythingis fantastic," García said. His wife, Consuelo, followed his play at PuntaEspada as ardently as the couple follow their son at major championships. Askedwhen he might make his next Champions start, García said Cap Cana was it for'09.

PHOTOPhotograph by MIKE EHRMANNNOTHING BUT BLUE SKIES As Norman drove on the 10th, the expansive view symbolized the shrinking tour's hopes for wider overseas horizons. PHOTOPhotograph by MIKE EHRMANNDOWN IN TWO With a dramatic hole-out for eagle at 17, Keith Fergus (above) leapfrogged Bean and O'Meara to steal the win, his second in six years on the senior circuit.
PHOTOPhotograph by MIKE EHRMANNGUEST APPEARANCE Using his first nonmajor senior start as a tune-up for Augusta, Norman was disdainful of the forward tees, struggled to 36th and made no guarantees about his Champions future. PHOTOPHIL INGLIS/GETTY IMAGES (GARCIA) PHOTOPhotograph by MIKE EHRMANN

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)