On the Green
This is the biography of a golf tournament. Bob Murphy, a Pittsburgh real estate entrepreneur, had every reason to believe his newest venture in the late 1980s would succeed.
He had jumped into the golf boom, buying Fallen Timber, a hardscrabble course near Midway in Washington County, and turning it into Quicksilver Golf Club. He might as well have touched it with the philosopher’s stone. The transformation was stunning. He had himself a tournament-quality course. Now, he had only to attract golfers.
As if on cue, the PGA Tour, the organization that brings you Phil Mickelson and the once-and-possibly-future Tiger Woods, et al., formed what it called the Ben Hogan Tour, a developmental tour for pros hoping to get to the “big tour.” Sponsored by the Hogan equipment company, the Hogan was made to order for clubs like Quicksilver. Murphy leaped at his chance.
“In order to put us on the map,” Murphy said, “we needed something with a ‘wow’ to it.”
Murphy landed the spot in 1990 and quickly made the Quicksilver Golf Classic the destination on the Hogan Tour. The standard Hogan purse was $100,000. Murphy started at $150,000 the first year, then went to $200,000, then $250,000. He also provided courtesy cars for the players. He’d turned the Quicksilver into a PGA Tour event. He attracted the cream of the tour, drawing such golfers such as John Daly, who had been playing the South African Tour, and Tom Lehman, who had grown so weary of playing in Asia that he rejoiced over something as simple as getting an American meal at an American air base. Quicksilver had become a real player—a tour course. And soon public golfers were flocking to it and paying $75, about double what the top public courses were charging. Murphy had his “wow.”
Murphy switched to the Senior Tour (50 and over) for five years. A number of PGA Tournaments were scattered through the last 10 or so years, among them the Pennsylvania Classic, the Marconi Classic, and the 84 Lumber Classic. The Mylan is scheduled to return in 2012. If the Mylan continues after that, it will be under a different tour name. Nationwide Insurance is ending its title sponsorship of the tour after that.
As the sponsors changed, the Hogan Tour became the Nike, then the Buy.com, and finally the Nationwide Tour.
It was a combination of accident and coincidence that first brought the Nationwide to Southpointe in 2010.
The Greenbrier Classic, at the Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., debuted on the PGA Tour in 2010, and that spelled the end of the Nationwide stop at the Pete Dye Golf Club at Bridgeport, W.Va. Tour officials decided that West Virginia was too small to support two tournaments in the same year.
Rod Piatt, owner and president of Southpointe Golf Club, was contacted by some Washington County officials: With the Pete Dye tournament gone, would he consider hosting a Nationwide tournament for charity in 2010?
“We thought about waiting ’til 2011,” said Piatt, “because we didn’t have much time and we’d also be facing some headwinds with the U.S. Women’s Open [in June] at Oakmont. But then, we just went ahead and jumped in with both feet.”
Organizing a golf tournament is not like throwing a party. It’s more like a military operation. The course has to be primped and preened. Grandstands have to be built, parking and transportation arranged, volunteers gathered (560 of them last year took a week’s vacation and paid $30 for their tournament uniforms and the privilege of working for nothing), food laid out and pro-ams arranged. Also, a sponsor had to be found.
This was a lock for Piatt. Mylan is headquartered at the Southpointe business park, and CEO Robert Coury was just a step away. It was like going over to the neighbor’s to borrow a cup of sugar. The Mylan Classic was born.
Despite running headlong into the Steelers, Pitt, high school football and the Pirates, the Mylan went swimmingly. This included raising money for charity, the sine qua non of the PGA Tour, the Champions Tour and the Nationwide Tour, all tax-exempt nonprofits. The 2010 Mylan raised more than $330,000 for regional charities. The bulk of it, over $277,000—a record for first-time Nationwide events—came through the ANSYS Tickets Fore Charity, which benefited some 200 charities. In essence, this is a self-help program. The organizations sell tickets for the tournament and keep the net proceeds. ANSYS, a leader in computer aided design and simulation engineering—also headquartered at Southpointe—kicked in $35,000.
Somewhere, someone discovered that golf is good for business. Really good. Possibly the earliest example of this notion came in 1682, when the Duke of York decided to settle an argument with two English noblemen on the golf course. The bet was substantial. To their surprise, the duke chose for his partner not a fellow nobleman, but a lowly commoner named John Paterson, who happened to be a poor tailor from Edinburgh, and who, they discovered, also happened to be the best golfer around. Paterson was able to build a house with his winnings. Nobody could call the duke a hustler (that word hadn’t entered the language yet), but the exercise was good practice for a man who would be king, which the duke went on to become, as James II.
Hustling remains the dark art of golf, but the game has long since settled into more conventional commerce—selling just about everything, creating image and drawing attention. For example, Augusta National Golf Club, founded in the teeth of the Great Depression, created the fabled Masters Tournament in order to attract wealthy members. Pinehurst, the North Carolina resort, started the Men’s North & South Amateur to attract business. Golf is especially good at conveying an image of integrity and trust. This was a natural for Mylan.
“First, it was very beneficial to Southpointe, Washington County, and the Pittsburgh region as a whole,” said Mylan Chairman and CEO Robert J. Coury. “More importantly, however, this tour has a very, very strong philanthropic objective, which fits right in with Mylan’s long-held practice of supporting the communities in which we operate. Last year alone, the tournament raised about $330,000 for local charities, and our goal is to top that this summer.”
Sponsorship is also an exercise in branding—getting one’s good name known and keeping it there, which speaks to the other side of the equation: Mylan serves customers in over 150 countries and territories, and the tournament will reach some 125 million households worldwide through the Golf Channel.
The situation was a bit different for Rod Piatt. The Southpointe business park was already about 93 percent occupied even before the Marcellus Shale boom started in 2007 and turned the park into an energy capital. So renting space wasn’t the goal. The tournament also would do little for Southpointe Golf Club, a private facility that doesn’t have walk-up play. So hosting the tournament was a personal matter for Piatt.
“I love golf,” Piatt said. “It’s my passion. There’s no better way to honor the game than to have a tour event at a club I own. It’s also great for the community and Washington County and the region.”
Life was good for Kevin Kisner, but scary. Kisner, then 26 and a Nationwide sophomore out of Aiken, S.C., had trailed by three shots in last year’s Mylan, and was about to enjoy his best finish in 25 starts. Say, second or third. But he was facing a mere four-foot putt for par on the final hole, a sure thing that a golfer can miss under the heavy pressure. He made it, for a bogey-free 67. But at first, he didn’t realize what it meant to him.
“I didn’t know I was going to win even when I made that last putt,” Kisner said. Behind him, Geoffrey Sisk, who led going into the final round, was making a double bogey at the 17th. Then he failed to birdie the 18th. Said Kisner: “My whole world turned upside-down there in a minute.” He had his first Nationwide victory, and the $108,000 first prize lifted him up on to the PGA Tour as one of the top 25 on the money list.
Three others from the Mylan Classic went on to the “big tour” in 2011 and chalked up rookie victories—Jhonattan Vegas, Brendan Steele and Keegan Bradley.
Steve Wheatcroft, from nearby Washington, Pa., playing under native-son pressure, faltered and tied for third, then got his first win early in June this year. He demolished the Melwood Prince George’s County Open, setting all kinds of records and crushing the field. He shot 60 in the second round. He was leading by eight going into the final round and could have strolled in, smelling the flowers along the way. But he pulled an Arnie Palmer, instead. “I told my caddie I was going to put the pedal to the metal right from the start,” Wheatcroft said. And he kept it there, right to the end. Even with the win in hand, he challenged the final hole, and eagled it for a 29-under-par 255 to win by 12.
“It was as good as it gets,” said Wheatcroft, drawing a bead on a return to Southpointe, where he once cleaned clubs and stored carts.
The Mylan Classic returns to Southpointe Golf Club, Sept. 1-4.