2003: Major conflict somehow worked

Wilmington, Del. / Newtown Square, Pa.

Sixteen months ago, the scheduling snafu was considered a major blunder. Two major championships, two different tours, two different states. Same time. Same market.

Would there be enough support for both events to flourish?

The McDonald’s LPGA Championship and the Senior PGA Championship were played last week outside Philadelphia. The McDonald’s LPGA was at DuPont Country Club in Wilmington, Del., while 30 miles to the northwest, the Senior PGA was at Aronimink Golf Club in Newtown Square, Pa.

Both were major successes despite the only thing tournament organizers couldn’t control – the weather.

It should be no surprise that both events prospered. Philadelphia has a long history of supporting sports, and its fans are labeled fanatics for a reason. The Eagles, 76ers and Flyers rarely have trouble filling seats. Last weekend, that love of sports spilled over into golf.

If you didn’t know better, you’d think each was the only significant tournament being held last week. Although they were close in proximity when measured by miles, the events seemed worlds apart.

The Senior PGA had more of a small-town feel, being played slightly off the beaten path at Newtown Square – population 15,000 – and Aronimink, a beautiful Donald Ross design lined with evergreens and hardwoods.

The McDonald’s LPGA had more volunteers and more community involvement, making it seem as if all of Wilmington – population 75,000 – was there to show support. The Alfred Tull-designed course is drastically different than Aronimink, feeling more spacious with fewer trees.

Demographics were different. To no surprise, the McDonald’s rode Annika-mania and welcomed many young girls there with their parents, as well as young women and Generation Xers getting their feet wet at a golf tournament for the first time. There also was a large Korean contingent, there to see Se Ri Pak and future star Hee-Won Han.

The Senior PGA galleries contained more middle-aged and elderly fans, with those behind the ropes watching legends Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player walk the mushy, saturated fairways for perhaps the last time.

“There is probably some crossover audience,” said Chris Higgs, the LPGA’s senior vice president and chief operations officer. “There are people who might want to see Jack and Arnold for the last time in this area, but the same group of people probably want to come see Nancy Lopez.”

Unfortunately for the Champions Tour, its fan favorites – the aforementioned Big Three – missed the cut and were not around for the weekend. The LPGA usually gains momentum and thrives on the weekends, when stars Sorenstam, Pak and Karrie Webb often are in contention.

The inclement weather kept many fans home Saturday and Sunday but attendance reports early in the week (Thursday and Friday) indicated that both events drew nearly 20,000 fans per day. McDonald’s had 23,613 fans Friday, a tournament record. The Senior PGA sold out its 19 corporate hospitality tents at more than $100,000 each, and 58 tables in the private Champions Club went for $15,000 apiece. Tournament officials said more than 100 companies were represented and there were 1,500 volunteers. The McDonald’s LPGA had more than 2,400 volunteers and all corporate tents were sold out for $25,000-$50,000 each. The event also raised nearly $2 million in charitable donations, matching what was raised at the 2002 event.

“For the fans and the volunteers, the weather was disappointing and challenging,” said Alice Miller, the McDonald’s LPGA tournament director. “But if we look at our true measure of success, we still had a great week.”

Both Philadelphia newspapers provided readers fair daily coverage. The Philadelphia Inquirer sent a reporter to each event and a columnist rotated between the two. The Philadelphia Daily News did the same. Had there been only one event, however, coverage certainly would have been more extensive.

Despite the accomplishments, the scheduling conflict should not have happened. If the clash cost either event from attracting more fans or more attention, it’s a net loss. And neither the Champions Tour nor the LPGA can afford for that to happen.

The LPGA and PGA of America knew in February 2002 that the dates were the same, and both said they could not be changed. With a poor economy, both organizations worried about the impact on corporate sponsors, ticket sales and volunteers. Yet both events forged on.

“We talked with them and both of us looked for other weeks available but we both had a lot of issues with television, scheduling and time of year,” said Kerry Haigh, the PGA of America’s senior director for tournaments. “We have the Memorial to think about with Jack. We certainly want the best player who has won the most majors to be in our championship.”

The Senior PGA couldn’t have been held earlier because May weather in the north is more unpredictable than early June. As Haigh stated, the week of the PGA Tour’s Memorial (May 29-June 1) was not an option because Nicklaus would not be available. A later date would be too close to the U.S. Senior Open (June 26-29).

The McDonald’s LPGA had similar constraints.

According to Higgs, Memorial Day weekend didn’t work, and the LPGA didn’t want to hold the championship a week later because it would compete with the U.S. Open. (Coverage of the Kraft Nabisco Championship often suffers because it typically runs opposite The Players Championship.) The week following the U.S. Open is only two weeks before the U.S. Women’s Open.

Thankfully, both events made the best of the situation and fared well.

“The saying, ‘This town is not big enough for the both of us,’ I believe doesn’t apply here,” Higgs said. “I believe this town is big enough for both of us.”

It turned out it was. But fans and sponsors in the Philadelphia area shouldn’t have had to prove it.

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