By Kurt Dusterberg
In the world of professional tournament golf, longevity can be elusive.
That’s why this year’s 10th anniversary of the SAS Championship at Prestonwood Country Club in Cary is a meaningful milestone.
“The biggest challenge is how to take a very good event and try to grow it and make it even better every year,” said Jeff Kleiber, the director of the local Champions Tour event since 2003. “We’re able to focus on opportunities rather than obstacles.”
Every tournament should be so lucky. Events come and go on pro golf tours, falling victim to lack of sponsorship, poor attendance and economic forces. Since 1983, the Champions Tour (then called the Senior PGA Tour) has fielded no fewer than 83 different events, according to PGA Tour officials.
A tournament earns a reputation for stability when it retains the same title sponsor and venue year after year. On the Champions Tour, only the Toshiba Classic at Newport Beach Country Club (Calif.) can boast a longer run at 15 years. SAS, a Cary-based leader in business software and services, has earned its place among the top destinations for the senior golf circuit.
“Having a great facility and a great title sponsor makes a lot of things easy,” said Kleiber. “So you can really focus on how you grow and how you have that great impact on your community.”
Kleiber says SAS boss Jim Goodnight has always focused on three concerns that benefit the Triangle: bringing a quality event to the community where SAS employees live and work, charitable giving in the community and supporting business development.
“They bring in customers from all over the world,” Kleiber said. “Last year, there were six or seven countries represented in the customers they entertained. Obviously, that’s a great way build relationships with their customers who use their products as well as prospective customers.”
The final component for a top-notch tournament is the golfers themselves. Their glad-handing in the pro-am events provides the feel-good connection for the clients of SAS and other sponsors. In turn, the touring pros compete for impressive prize money.
But a successful tournament needs other tangible attractions to lure a quality field. Golfers are not required to play in all 26 tour events, so they choose their tournaments on a variety of factors.
“We all play the majority of the events, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some where you’re going to pass,” said Hale Irwin, a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame and the 2005 SAS champion. “If you live in Orlando, are you going to come all the way out to Seattle? Well, if you are, the tournament better have a good package, and I think that’s what we all tend to look at.
“We’ve had a wonderful host with SAS. Dr. Goodnight stepped up 10 years ago and presented SAS as our sponsor. He’s been a loyal supporter ever since. It goes to all those peripheral things that come with a tournament.”
Even with all the fringe benefits in place, Kleiber can’t simply assume the top players will commit to the annual September event. To shore up all the details, he went to the senior tournament in Minneapolis in early August. That’s where many players signed on the dotted line.
“That part is pretty easy,” he said. “It’s just a matter of saying, ‘Hey, you haven’t committed yet. Can I book your hotel? Can you commit, so we can start promoting that you’re coming?'”
It helps that the tournament sells itself after a decade of making the right impression.
“It’s relationships. It’s making sure you’re taking care of the players. An event’s reputation spreads, both positive and negative. We’re always focused on first-class services for the players, just like any event.”
But just then, Kleiber comes clean about a little advantage the SAS Championship enjoys over all the other events.
“When I go see the guys on the Champions Tour and I talk to them about our event, the first thing every single one of them says is, ‘How’s the buffet?’ The quickest way to someone’s heart is through their belly.”
Indeed, when the subject turns to food, Irwin is practically grabbing a plate.
“Let’s put it this way, the food service there is surpassed by none on the Champions Tour,” he said with a laugh. “It’s not one particular thing on the buffet. I load up. Unfortunately, you can tell by looking at most of us, we should be loading down.”
Once the player commitments are secured, the tournament infrastructure makes its mark.
“What separates us in the recruitment process is everybody has always had a good experience here,” Kleiber said. “They know it’s a well-run event in a great golf community, so it’s going to be well-supported by both the patrons and volunteers, even the corporate sponsors involved.”
That’s not to say the event hasn’t faced rough patches. This will be the third tournament since the downturn in the economy, a reality that has affected corporate backing.
“Some of our bigger sponsors have had to cut back — not that they wanted to, because we were delivering what they wanted. It was just decisions based on the recession and their business. We’ve been very fortunate that a lot of those sponsors have not gone away completely.”
In recent years, the tournament has responded a with a no-nonsense approach to cost containment. Simple measures like trimming the tournament bus schedule have saved between $10,000 and $15,000 in transportation and security costs.
And when it comes to growing the tournament, new ideas are implemented with an eye toward new customers. The 2010 tournament will feature AT&T Family Day with bounce houses and face painting. Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina will host a 5K fun run prior to the second round. Runners will track the back nine of the tournament course.
The Champions Tour peaked in exposure in the late 1990s. During a five-year run, it boasted as many as 39 tournaments each year. Today, the tour has settled into a manageable schedule of 26 events. The SAS Championship, with its $2.1 million purse and September date, is positioned for continued success.
“We’ve got one of the highest purses on the tour, especially at the end of the year when people are playing for positions on the money list, which determines access for next year — or if they are competing for the Charles Schwab Cup. As you get near the end of the year, playing in the bigger events, it makes the recruiting really easy,” Kleiber said.
For the golfers, the SAS Championship takes on a flavor of its own — even without the ones wafting from the buffet.
“The tournament has done some great things in the community,” Irwin said. “All in all, it’s a great package.”