By Kurt Dusterberg
A lot can change over the course of 15 years. Just ask Jeff Kleiber, the SAS Championship tournament director.
“In 2001, it really was just a golf tournament, with a limited time to get that one off the ground,” Kleiber said. “It was an early-summer commitment for an event that was three months later.”
Since Bruce Lietzke won the inaugural tournament for professional golfers 50 and older, organizers of the Champions Tour stop here have spent the ensuing years building the golf tournament into a Triangle tradition. The event annually attracts the top senior players to Prestonwood Country Club in Cary, but that’s just part of what brings fans out for SAS Championship week.
“Today, it has become a much larger community event because it appeals to more than the golf fan or the golfer in our community,” Kleiber said.
The tournament week, which runs Oct. 5-11, features no shortage of such activities. If your fitness routine involves some running, there’s the Live Fearless 5K, a race that follows the back nine of the tournament course. Are you a business woman looking to network? Executive Women’s Day offers a seminar with an eye toward corporate leadership and career advancement.
“You have to evolve or you become extinct,” says Kleiber, who has run the tournament since it began. “One of SAS’s focuses is that it gives back and supports the community. You need to have activities and events that appeal to the greater audience.”
In the first 14 years, the SAS Championship has donated $3.8 million to support area youth education initiatives, with a focus on the YMCA of the Triangle. As the audience grows, so does the charitable impact.
The operation runs smoothly each year, and Kleiber gives much of the credit to the volunteers. Many sporting events that rely heavily on volunteer staff observe a drop off in participation near the 10-year mark. That hasn’t happened at the SAS Championship.
“We’re very blessed that our volunteer management teams and committee chairs, most have been with us all 15 years and they have a great team underneath them,” Kleiber says. “The uniqueness of the Prestonwood member and the SAS employee is very special. They take great pride in what they do.”
Ron McCabe is one of those volunteers, managing the media center for all 14 tournaments. The job has evolved since the early years, when he and his staff maintained a leaderboard in the media room, using magnetic numbers to update the scores. Today, reporters rely on laptops.
But the job hasn’t changed much otherwise. McCabe and his staff provide player information and tournament statistics to the working press. Unlike most volunteers who work a half-day shift, McCabe works the media center all day, every day during tournament week.
“We do feel we’ve made a contribution,” said McCabe, who retired from a communications career at IBM in 1998. “Most of us who are managing are retired, so it’s easier for us to give up all day for a whole week than it is for those who are working.”
Many of the volunteer managers are Prestonwood members or SAS employees, giving the tournament a group of exceptional contributors.
“They’re amazing,” Kleiber said. “We’re able to get by with fewer volunteers because many of them work all day, every day. It says a lot about this community that they will support something that gives back so much.”
But the satisfaction isn’t a one-way street. The volunteers take something from the experience, too.
“We feel a responsibility to make it come off as best we can,” said Kleiber, a Prestonwood member. “It’s our course, so have a little ownership interest in the success of it. But it’s also fun for us. We’re all golfers and we love to watch these guys play.”
Despite all the other activities during tournament week, the golf is still at the heart of the experience. The players on the Champions Tour have all passed their 50th birthday, but they remain near their competitive peak. And the names in the tournament field are usually a ‘who’s who’ of PGA Tour regulars and legends.
“Players are playing longer on the PGA Tour before they turn 50,” Kleiber said. “Back when (the tour) started, people weren’t playing into their mid-to-late 40s. Now, they’re counting down the days until they can play on the Champions Tour — while they’re still playing in PGA Tour events.”
While some of the Hall of Fame players make their annual memories on the Cary course, Kleiber and his team will make sure that the atmosphere is one of a kind. That’s why Food Truck Friday will be back for a third straight year, and country music performer Kasey Tyndall will entertain the crowd.
As a once-a-year-event, the SAS Championship has one chance to get it right.
“It’s not like you have 41 home hockey games,” Kleiber said. “It’s a totally different structure, where you’re working 51 weeks for those seven days. But there are a lot of unique things that make it special, from the players to the volunteers to our sponsors.”
Over the last 15 years, Champions Tour events across North Carolina, in places like Clemmons and Hickory, have disappeared, while the SAS Championship remains one of the circuit’s most popular stops for the players.
The Home Depot Invitational was also staged from 1983 to 2001 in Charlotte, the later years at the TPC at Piper Glen (1990-2001).
“There are very few tournaments that have lasted this long,” said Larry Nelson, who has played in all of the SAS events. “SAS is one of the best companies in the world to go to work for and they treat the golf tournament the same say. They leave no rocks unturned with trying to figure out the best way to treat us. They have done just a great job with how they feed us, it has really been amazing. I would rank it in the top one or two tournaments we play in every year hospitality-wise.”
Nelson was on the Champions Tour board of directors and was asked to do some recon at Prestonwood when the tour was deciding whether to host a tournament there.
“It’s kind of an old school golf course,” Nelson said of his first recollection of the layout. “You kind of get what you get; if you hit it in the fairway that’s where it stays, if you hit in the rough that’s where it will be. I was just very impressed with the golf course and the facility itself. The clubhouse is the nicest and probably the largest clubhouse I’ve ever been to. Everything just kind of fit in for us at Prestonwood.”
Hall of Famer Hale Irwin is also a big proponent of the SAS Championship.
“It has been one of the more popular events on the Champions Tour for a long, long time,” Irwin said. “Raleigh is right in the heart of golf country and we had a very good start to the SAS Championship with some exciting finishes. The city really embraces the event. By any measure it has been a very successful event.”
So bring on the bounce houses, clinics and face painting. After 15 years, Kleiber is just getting started tapping into potential patrons.
“We try to bring more and more of the community out,” he said. “That’s how you see growth and that’s how you see the impact increase each year.”