Leaving A Big Hole To Fill

Departure Of Major Golf Tournaments Leaves Fans In The Lurch, Empty Coffers For Municipalities

July 05, 2009|By Don Markus | Don Markus,don.markus@baltsun.com

BETHESDA - -The scene around the first tee at Congressional Country Club Friday was what most envisioned when Tiger Woods announced three years ago that he would be hosting a regular Professional Golf Association tour event over Fourth of July weekend.

Fans stood five-deep in most places, 10-deep in others, hoping for a glimpse of the world's best player. But when Woods leaves after Sunday's final round of the AT&T National tournament, big-time golf in Maryland will suffer the latest painful blow.

Woods' tournament is leaving the region until at least 2012, because Congressional needs to prepare for the 2011 U.S. Open.

The exit follows the Ladies Professional Golf Association tour departure from Bulle Rock in Harford County last month after a five-year run. And the future of the one professional tournament remaining in the state, the Constellation Energy Senior Players Championship, is clouded by the unraveling financial status of the title sponsor and a reluctance of members of the Baltimore Country Club in Timonium to extend the contract past 2012.

For a state steeped in golf history - the fifth U.S. Open was played at the original Baltimore Country Club location in Roland Park in 1899 - the void is significant. Fans will have to look elsewhere for entertainment; companies feting clients will have to find new venues or even new sports; and businesses and governments in Harford and Montgomery counties and elsewhere will lose revenue.

"We're trying to figure out other events," said Terry Hasseltine, director of the state's Office of Sports Marketing. "It might not be one significant one that has an identity like the LPGA. It might be several mid-tier events that will help us sustain the same impact on the region."

One such event will be the NCAA men's lacrosse final four, slated for M&T Bank Stadium next year. An even more prestigious - and revenue-producing - event is the Army-Navy game, scheduled for the same venue in 2014 and 2016. The annual service academy classic is expected to bring an estimated $22 million to the Baltimore area.

Next month, the stadium will also be the site of an international soccer match between Chelsea and A.C. Milan.

"That event has opened our door because it's such a high-profile international sporting event," said Hasseltine. "The men's lacrosse championship does fill a void because of the way the hotel package is designed, and some of the hotels in Harford County will get the overflow."

Major golf events have provided a boost to the region. In 2007, the LPGA Championship contributed around $5.5 million to the economy in Harford County, according to local officials. In 2008, the AT&T National tournament (minus an injured Woods) contributed nearly $17 million to the local economy, according to Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett.

The LPGA pulled one of its four major championships out of Bulle Rock shortly after learning last year that the McDonald's Corp. was ending its long association with women's golf. A drop in corporate interest, and ultimately in charitable donations, led to the split.

"Did we make a lot of money? No," said Rick Rounsaville, Bulle Rock's general manager. But "it put us on the worldwide map for a week. It kept Bulle Rock in front of the golfing community."

When Woods announced that he would bring a tournament to historic Congressional Country Club in 2007, the membership had already agreed to host the 2009 U.S. Amateur and the 2011 U.S. Open. After some maneuvering, the Amateur was moved to Tulsa, Okla., and Woods began looking for another venue for 2010 and 2011.

Greg McLaughlin, the executive director of the AT&T National, admitted last week that the tournament might have to reinvent itself when it returns to Maryland in 2012.

"When you leave the market for two years, even though [U.S. Open] golf will be here in 2011, it will take reacquainting volunteers, sponsors and ticket-buyers with the event," McLaughlin said. "I think it will be better than it was in 2007, but it's going to require an effort."

It comes at a time when companies that have served as longtime title sponsors as well as communities that have served as longtime hosts are pulling their commitment because of the faltering economy.

"The economy in sports in general has definitely had an effect," said McLaughlin, who has been running PGA Tour events for more than 20 years. "There has been a slowdown in a lot of corporate budgets, there's definitely been a fallout. I think every sports team has felt that."

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