Greg Hansen: Tour's silence on Match Play in '12 is not a good sign

2011-02-26T00:00:00Z 2011-02-26T00:38:50Z Greg Hansen: Tour's silence on Match Play in '12 is not a good signGreg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
February 26, 2011 12:00 am  • 

Mark Burk is a homeless man from Golf Channel's ongoing series "Pipe Dreams," a golf-tour-wannabe who lives in highway culvert pipes somewhere near Palm Springs, Calif.

On Friday, after taking a bus from a minitour event in Phoenix, Burk was part of the large gallery at The Ritz-Carlton Golf Club, Dove Mountain. The timing created an inescapable analogy: Was this homeless golfer watching a golf tournament searching for a home?

The contract that binds the Match Play event to Dove Mountain essentially expires Sunday. The silence from Accenture and the PGA Tour has created a din.

"It's on the tip of everybody's tongue," said Wade Dunagan, executive director of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship. "Everybody is very concerned. Everybody is very curious."

Although Dunagan declined comment on his future, it's almost certain he will leave his position, possibly by next week. That can't be good. At this stage - without a contract for 2012, without a word from PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem or the Accenture high command - paranoia creeps in.

In a city that has lost major-league spring training, a college football bowl game, an LPGA Tour event, USA Baseball and even the Pro Bowlers tour, we know how to worry and when to worry. Now is that time.

There is no known community group, domestic or international, that seeks to acquire the Match Play event in 2012 or thereafter. That doesn't mean the tour isn't quietly pursuing a new site somewhere overseas in a warm-weather climate.

Putting together a deal for a golf event of this scope - No. 2 overall seed Martin Kaymer of Germany on Friday said "this tournament, obviously, is one of the biggest we have all year" - isn't done overnight - or even in a year's time.

That's why Match Play seems locked into Dove Mountain for 2012.

When the Tucson Conquistadores aggressively chased the Match Play event, then located in Carlsbad, Calif., it wasn't much of a secret. Conquistadore Russ Perlich, who was also a PGA Tour board member, estimated he flew to the tour's Florida headquarters "umpteen times" over several years to broker the deal.

About 18 months before leaving golf-saturated Southern California, the Match Play people scouted potential sites in Las Vegas, the greater Phoenix area and in Santa Barbara, Calif. It settled on Tucson for five reasons: climate; the Conquistadores; a 60-year history of community support for the Tucson Open; the promise of a new golf course, designed by Jack Nicklaus; and an on-site hotel built by Ritz-Carlton.

It seemed to be enough to please the golf people for at least 10 years, but business is business, right?

A Match Play event, even one with the world's 64 leading golfers, is a hard sell. It is a front-loaded, weekend-thin format with high ticket prices in a blue-collar town. In the first year at Dove Mountain, 2007, the Match Play event had revenues of about $5.5 million. After the novelty wore off, revenues dropped to about $4.5 million in Year 2.

The PGA Tour was so concerned it then asked executive director Mike Garten to leave, replacing him with Dunagan.

Corporate sales this year have gone up about 35 percent from 2010, according to the Conquistadores. Crowds on Wednesday through Friday have been as robust as at any time in four years. It's difficult to imagine any location supporting this event the way Southern Arizona does, quirky format and all.

But this was never going to be a local production or a long-lasting relationship. The PGA Tour is excessively hands-on. In the three-month lead-up to the tournament, Dunagan said he trades "about 100 e-mails with the tour every day."

"It's a massive undertaking," he said.

There are four components to this golf tournament: the tour and its championship management division; Accenture; the Conquistadores; and the Ritz-Carlton. The tour calls the shots, but Accenture, which contributes in excess of $10 million per year for sponsorship, is the real heavy.

If its 500 clients are bored with the Ritz, weary of Southern Arizona, wishing for a more cosmo setting, the tour is bound to find a new place to play.

There should be some clarity by Sunday afternoon. In the past, Finchem has treated Tucson fairly and been upfront, even when he encumbered the Tucson Open 12 years ago, putting it opposite the Match Play event in Southern California.

My guess is that Match Play will return for another year, but no longer than through 2014, if only because there are few suitable alternatives.

If not, the Conquistadores are an enterprising group of business people who won't be unprepared for change. They could pursue something as grand as the Schwab Cup, a November-finish to the Champions Tour season. Or they could deal with Finchem to get another spot on the schedule, minus Accenture, without all the stars.

At this stage, almost anything is better than the uncertainty.

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