2002: Amateur - Impact Player
How do you create a major amateur tournament and make it an instant success?
The answer is simple: Hop in an airplane, head west to California from South Carolina and the idea for such an event will pop into your head while cruising at 38,000 feet somewhere over the Mississippi River. OK, so it may not be that easy, but that is how it happened for Players Amateur founders Duke Delcher and Tom McKnight.
Delcher and McKnight, two prominent amateur standouts from South Carolina, were on their way to play in the 1999 U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach when they decided to try their hand at running an event, much like the ones they have competed in nearly their entire lives.
“We were just talking and one thing led to another,” McKnight said. “We felt like it was something we could do that would be a good opportunity to give back to the game that has been so good to us for so long.”
Added Delcher: “The flight was way too long and we got way too bored. We got talking about golf, and that’s how the idea was born. We felt through our lifetime of playing golf that we had the knowledge, certainly from a player’s perspective, to put on an event that would be very player-friendly and well-organized.”
A good idea but not an easy task to accomplish, as Delcher and McKnight quickly discovered. What they could rely on – a luxury which many first-time tournament directors do not have – were numerous contacts from many years of playing the amateur circuit.
Delcher, 46, was a member of the victorious United States Walker Cup team in 1997, when the event was held at Quaker Ridge Golf Club in Scarsdale, N.Y. McKnight, 47, advanced to the final of the 1998 U.S. Amateur before falling to Hank Kuehne at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y. He also was on the 1999 Walker Cup squad that lost to Great Britain & Ireland at Nairn Golf Club in Scotland. Delcher is still an amateur and competes in the Players, but McKnight turned professional last year to prepare for a Senior PGA Tour career.
Within a month of the pair returning from the U.S. Amateur, the ball began to roll. In September 1999, the Players Amateur secured two key components: sponsorship and a host course. With the help of friends Mark Thaxton and Kel Devlin, the Players Amateur secured Nike Golf as official sponsor. Each contestant receives a Nike gift package – one that is different each year – that includes shoes, sunglasses, gloves, shirts, hats and balls. In return, the Players provides Nike Golf with numerous spots in the contestant-amateur event, held a day before the 72-hole tournament.
Timing was key to cutting the Nike deal, Delcher said.
“We contacted them right about the time they were thinking about getting out of the Nike Tour and going a little more grass roots,” Delcher said. “They were very gracious with us with the gifts for the players and our sponsors. We brought a huge golf company into the mix that has instant credibility and recognition.”
The decision was a no-brainer, Nike officials said, and it’s a relationship with which both parties are pleased.
“We knew from the beginning they were going to do what they said they would do,” said Thaxton, Nike’s United States PGA Tour manager who has competed against Delcher and McKnight in amateur events. “It was good for Nike Golf to get associated with something that soon will be the best amateur golf tournament in the country.”
The Players Amateur placed a call to Far Hills, N.J., to make sure Nike’s gift bag would not be in violation of the Rules of Amateur Status. Delcher called Tony Zirpoli, the U.S. Golf Association’s senior director of amateur status, and was given the thumbs up.
“Most high-quality amateur tournaments are going to check with us,” Zirpoli said. “It’s traditional that many high-class events give nice tee prizes to all their participants, and they want to make sure the prizes conform so amateurs don’t lose their status.
“The first premise is that everyone must be treated the same – that’s where we get concerned. As long as gifts aren’t in excess and player A receives the same as player B, we’re fine.”
Securing the course – Belfair Plantation in Bluffton, S.C. (near Hilton Head Island) – also was accomplished quickly. Delcher and McKnight, both Belfair members, went to club officials and presented their idea. Within weeks, the Players Amateur had a permanent home when members gave Delcher and McKnight their approval.
In January 2000, Delcher and McKnight completed two more pieces of the puzzle, forming an executive committee to make important decisions and commissioning Classic Gifts and Awards to develop a tournament logo with the American flag prominently displayed.
Then it was time to start the process of selecting players to invite to the inaugural event. The committee selected players based on the Golfweek/Titleist Amateur Rankings, scoring averages, contact with college coaches and “a lot of talking,” McKnight said. The first invitations were sent out in March 2000.
The top 15 players each year automatically are exempt into the following year’s event, as is the Belfair club champion. (The current Belfair champion is 15-year-old Patrick Datz, who worked as a caddie the first two Players Amateurs.). The field is limited to 72 players.
Heading in the right direction
What the Players Amateur has evolved into is a get-to-the-airport-and-we’ll-take-care-of-the-rest event that has received rave reviews from competitors after only two years. All tournament organizers ask is for players to get to South Carolina. From there, they will be shuttled, housed, fed and entertained all week.
“The Players Amateur is similar to the Memorial in professional golf,” said PGA Tour pro Matt Kuchar, who finished fourth in the inaugural event won by Ben Curtis. “They’ve made it a tournament where the players really enjoy being there. They’re treated well, it’s a great course (and) practice facilities, and they draw a lot of big names because of that.”
Indeed, the Players Amateur has come a long way in a short period of time, already attracting names such as Kuchar, James Driscoll, David Eger, John Harris, Bryce Molder, John “Spider” Miller and Jerry Courville. Bermuda’s Michael Sims won the 2001 event, a week after defeating Molder in the North and South Amateur at Pinehurst in North Carolina.
“I’d say we’re on course with where we want to be, not ahead of schedule,” Delcher said. “We’ll continue to make the tournament the best we can. We ultimately want everyone to know that only the best players come to the Players Amateur – period, end of story.”
Two other key elements the Players Amateur has working in its favor are its dedication to local children’s charities and the support the event receives from the Heritage Classic Foundation, the entity behind the PGA Tour’s WorldCom Classic.
In March, the Heritage Classic Foundation agreed to support the Players Amateur by extending an exemption to the champion to the following year’s WorldCom Classic, held at Harbour Town Golf Links on Hilton Head. The WorldCom is held in mid-April, the week after the Masters, and the Players Amateur is staged each summer. Therefore, the 2002 Players Amateur winner will receive an invitation to the 2003 WorldCom, whether he is a professional or amateur at the time.
“Their involvement with us rounds out their commitment to golf, it rounds out their portfolio,” Delcher said of the foundation. “That announcement ought to help us with the strength of field.”
One thing near and dear to Delcher and McKnight is raising enough money through sponsors to give donations to local children’s charities. The first year, the Players Amateur lost $35,000, but still managed to give $20,000 to charities. After the second tournament, the event paid off its debt and gave $35,000 to local charities.
“We wanted to give to children who are less fortunate than us,” Delcher said. “But the first year was a quick wake-up call for us. That was difficult for us, but we learned a lot and that showed in our second year. From a charitable standpoint and a fiscally sound standpoint, we’re where we need to be.”
Still work to do
One of the top priorities for Delcher and McKnight is to find the Players Amateur a permanent spot in the schedule, one players know will not change on a yearly basis.
In 2000, the tournament was held in August, just before the U.S. Amateur. Last year, that date conflicted with the Walker Cup so the Players was moved up to July. This year’s event was moved back a week (July 18-21) to avoid a conflict with the U.S. Amateur Public Links, but the USGA then changed the date of the Public Links so it now conflicts with the Players. The Southern Amateur also is scheduled for that weekend in Atlanta.
“Absolutely, yes we want a date, but I don’t know that we’ve found it yet,” Delcher said. “We want to be somewhere between the 10th of July and the U.S. Amateur (in mid- to late-August).
“We realized that getting a date was going to be a problem for us. We don’t want to go up against anything else, but there also is no way to avoid it. We hope that by next year, we’ll have a date that is our date and everybody knows that is when the Players Amateur is.”
As Delcher sees it, the only other thing missing from the Players Amateur is the history and tradition that makes events such as the Western Amateur, Sunnehanna Amateur, Porter Cup, North and South, and Northeast Amateur so special. But he knows there’s not much he can do about that.
“We did feel that we had a unique opportunity because of 2000 to start the tournament,” Delcher said, referring to the beginning of a new millennium. “We thought maybe we’ll have a bit of tradition 50 years from now by starting this in 2000. That was just a great timing thing.”