2005: Newsmakers - Top mini-tours combine

The most anticipated showdown in South Florida since Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson went toe-to-toe at Doral was decided before the competitors ever made it to the first tee. Following weeks of buildup that promised an old-fashion turf war, officials from the upstart Grey Goose Gateway Tour’s Beach Series and Golden Bear Tour announced a peculiar merger March 24.

After eight years as South Florida’s premier mini-tour, the Golden Bear Tour folded its operations into the first-year Beach Series. Although terms of the deal were not disclosed, Golden Bear executive director Ken Kennerly said the acquisition involved a six-figure donation to the Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation and assurances that current Golden Bear Tour players would be able to play the Beach Series.

“We did not see any momentum building for either tour,” Kennerly said. “Ultimately, we wanted to do what was best for developmental golf. Having two weak tours would not have been acting in the best interest of the players.”

Late last year, Gateway Tour officials relocated the Beach Series from Myrtle Beach, S.C., to South Florida. From the outset, the relationship between the two circuits was contentious.

Gateway Tour executive director Chris Stutts hired the Golden Bear Tour’s longtime tournament director (Rick Whitfield) and hiked his purses in an attempt to draw players.

“We’ve always been friendly but there were a few comments that came off the wrong way . . . that’s business,” said Stutts, who also runs Gateway Tour series in Alabama, California and Arizona.

Both tours required the same up-front payment ($18,500), had similar purses and were scheduled to hold the same number of events (14) in 2005. The difference for players seems to have been the Gateway Tour’s lucrative Tour Championship. The season-ending event includes the top 30 percent from each series’ money list and an estimated $750,000 purse.

“A lot of guys were just looking for a change,” said mini-tour regular Steve LeBrun. “They see more money and that’s a big thing on the mini-tours.”

Stutts played the Golden Bear Tour in 1997, earning the tour’s Player of the Year award, and credits the Jack Nicklaus-designed format for giving him his start as a player and tournament director.

“I think there could have been two tours, at least for the first couple of years,” said Stutts.

A Golden Bear Tour player meeting was scheduled for March 29 in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., and Kennerly was hopeful the Beach Series could accommodate most of the members of his tour staff.

“As you know when you put two companies together there is some fallout,” Kennerly said. “But every player is in a better position than they were a week ago. This is Christmas for all of them.”

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