Tuesday, December 6, 2022

PGA TOUR Returns to Puerto Rico

By on February 21, 2019

Editor’s note: The following originally appeared in the Feb. 21 -27, 2019, issue of Caribbean Business.

As Puerto Rico gets set to host its 11th edition of the Puerto Rico Open, a PGA TOUR event launched on a vision and passion shared by former Puerto Rico Golf Association Chairman Sidney Wolf, current Puerto Rico Open Chairman David Chafey and Empresas Díaz, the adage—“you cannot improvise experience”—comes to mind.

Prior to the event’s first edition in 2008, Wolf and Chafey put in frequent-flyer miles to pitch the island’s wares—a PGA TOUR-caliber course, fantastic weather and world-class team—to land a date on the TOUR. The Professional Golfers’ Association of America TOUR only contemplates top-tier organizers and venues to host its events. The organizers made a plea to then-Gov. Aníbal Acevedo Vilá.

“About 12 years ago, Sidney called me and said we have to host a PGA TOUR event,” recalled Chafey during an interview held several weeks ago. “So, we met with then-Gov. Aníbal Acevedo Vilá. The governor had been learning how to play golf—he listened and understood the value of this. Sports are all good, entertainment for the people is all good, but if you obtain exposure for Puerto Rico through global television in more than 200 countries and 550 million households—you can’t beat that.”

Add to the mix, Empresas Díaz, developers of Meliá Coco Beach Golf Resort, which invested crazy money supersizing their Coco Beach links into the Trump International Golf & Country Club, where the event was held prior to returning to its Coco Beach reincarnation. In fact, prior to the 2008 inaugural edition, it took $2 million to import sand that had the micron specifications required by the PGA TOUR. And in year two, the Díaz family invested more than $500,000 in the Championship course to make certain it met the high-quality standards demanded of this world-class event.

Now, in its current incarnation, the Puerto Rico Open is back after skipping 2018 due to repairs after being savaged by nature in 2017. “It was a monumental undertaking,” says the P.R. Open chairman. “Many of the courses suffered huge damages—severe flooding, especially Coco Beach, which has areas that are low-lying and is surrounded by marshland. We also lost a lot of trees. It was in such bad shape that we were unable to host the event last year.”

Putting skin in the game

Instead, the organizers hosted a one-day Pro Am at the Ritz-Carlton Reserve Dorado Beach East Course in 2018, which was attended by some of the winners from past years and some players from the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA). A total of 18 pros played nine holes with each group. That event raised nearly $750,000.

Chafey told Caribbean Business that they were well on their way to surpassing the $700,000 mark again this year. Ironically, or perhaps fittingly, the P.R. Open chairman is continuing his strategy to reach out to the creditor community, most of whom are in rather contentious bankruptcy proceedings under Title III of the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management & Economic Stability Act (Promesa).

In 2017, the event raised more than $700,000 to contribute to community initiatives in large part from the many funds belonging to the creditor camp. Several monoline bond insurance companies, on the hook for billions in the Puerto Rico debt-restructuring game, and a host of other creditor constituencies contributed to the event because they understood this event helped strengthen Puerto Rico’s financial position.

“I called every banker; I called every monoline insurer; I called every hedge fund,” Chafey let on. “I think they understood that this tournament would contribute to the economy.” Now, the P.R. Open top brass is out raising money among the many financial and legal advisers who are working on restructuring Puerto Rico’s $70 billion debt under Promesa.

“We are doing this thing and we are back; [hedge fund] Monarch [owners of Coco Beach] has been stellar in their support for the event,” Chafey says with the earnestness of someone who has put long hours into kick-starting the Open after the host course was devastated by nature. “The course is in great condition because Monarch put a bunch of money into this. And the players consider this a very challenging golf course, especially when the wind blows.”

Evidence of the Coco Beach links’ degree of difficulty surfaced in the first edition, when players had a wicked time attempting to clear a gnarly rough on Hole No. 12—a 490-yard Par 4—because the 290-yard carry was near impossible in the face of blistering wind. Such was the difficulty that the hole’s fairway was brought 30 yards closer.

P.R. Open Tour tested

Back in 2011, Caribbean Business interviewed former PGA TOUR Commissioner Tim Finchem. At that time, Puerto Rico was very close to securing its own separate date rather than competing with another larger event on the same weekend. In the past, the P.R. Open competed with the World Golf Championships (WGC) event held at Doral Country Club; in 2019, the headline event during this weekend is being held in Mexico. “It used to be Doral, but now it is Mexico, where Phil, Tiger and Rory will be,” Chafey explains. “The reason the PGA gives us so much is because they have to have an additional venue where the other 144 players can compete. The top players go to the main events.”

Securing marquee names in a PGA field is much like casting movie stars in a film—land a couple of leading men and women, and the money will follow. In the Puerto Rico Open saga, the big names and blue-chip sponsors are essential to the tournament’s continued success.

“Well, in our sport, we don’t have any franchise owners, nobody owns a tournament,” Commissioner Finchem explained during the 2011 interview. “It is all about partnerships—partnerships with the community, partnerships with sponsors. When we have those partnerships come together, we have successful tournaments, tournaments that can raise significant dollars for charity and can have a significant economic impact. It is the quality of the partners who make the difference in terms of the quality of our tournaments. Here [in Puerto Rico,] we have very strong partnerships, and that bodes well for the future.”

Truth be told, the island’s PGA TOUR event has done tremendously well, even as the tournament took place on the same weekend as the higher-profile Cadillac World Golf Championships (WGC) Tournament held on the famed Blue Monster Course at the Doral Country Club in Miami. “The quality of the event isn’t the issue; we have a full schedule. We are amid preparing for television negotiations later this year, and that sets the stage for a new schedule,” Finchem explained. “Every time we do that, we reflect on our schedule, which underpins what we do with our sponsors. On the one hand, this event clearly has the capability, the infrastructure, the quality of the golf course to play on any date and be successful. There really are two possibilities here—one is in the first quarter and one is in the fourth quarter. So, we will continue to look at it.”

If Puerto Rico hosted a main event, exposure through NBC would see a quantum leap and prize money would nearly double. “That should be the goal,” Chafey added, “but you would have to raise another $4 million to $5 million. And it is doable—the tournament had eight years where we were in a rut, yet over the past two or three years, we have seen growth.”

Some in the know say the event’s focus on community initiatives helped drive growth over the past three years. The fundraising spike over the past three years has bolstered Chafey’s confidence to think bigger—he believes the event can make it to top flight if all local financial players get behind it.

For that to become a reality, he believes the big players in retail—the Walmarts, Econos, insurance companies—have to jump into the Open fray. “If all the companies that can afford it pitch in, we won’t have to ask anyone for $1 million,” said Chafey, punctuating his vision.

“If you think about it, this is the biggest event in terms of exposure for Puerto Rico,” Chafey told Caribbean Business as if to stress the need to build Puerto Rico’s languid tourism sector. “And if in your $7 million budget, which is what it costs to put this together, the PGA TOUR is giving you half, they cover all the prize money. The check for the winner is $540,000, but more than $3.6 million in total prize money has been earmarked for the event. Added to that, they bring in other partners to help make the event more generous.”

The last year the P.R. Open was held, in 2017, some 3.5 million people tuned in—average viewing time was in the vicinity of 45 minutes. And the other area that the event is very successful at is community outreach—it helps the community.

“John Wolf, who belongs to a foundation, Good Sports, that gathers sports accessories—baseball, football, volleyball—donated the equipment, and we were able to recruit the secretary of [P.R.] Education and others to help give away baseball gloves, bats,” Chafey added.

Now, in the age of our lord A.M. (After Maria), bunkers were overhauled, drainage storm-hardened and greens inspected on a regular basis by a PGA TOUR groundskeeping inspector. “There is an army of people—600 volunteers, suppliers and TV crews—who put in a ton of work to prop up tents, TV towers, entertainment zones and suites along the finishing hole,” Chafey explained. “People work hard for an entire year.”

Springboard to majors

Although Wolf and Chafey set their sights on recruiting players who notched major titles on their belts—players like Ian Poulter, Ángel Cabrera, Stewart Cink, John Daly, Retief Goosen—the event became a springboard for top talent on the tour today. Major winners Jordan Spieth, who finished second in 2013; Jason Day, who tied for second in 2009; and most recently Bryson De’Chambeau, who tied for second in 2017, all had very positive showings at the Puerto Rico event prior to hitting the TOUR stratosphere.

“I have to give Sidney credit for that because you have to recruit popular [well-known] players so there is name recognition,” Chafey says. “But you also have to bring players who are up-and-coming. Tony Finau has to think Puerto Rico is fantastic; D.A. Points, who is established—won here and won several more tournaments after that.”

Those selling points play very well on the funding front. As pertains to the local crowd, however, the draw is in Puerto Rico amateurs, four of whom play tournaments prior to the Open to help decide who makes the cut to play in a PGA TOUR event. The most recent local star to play his way onto the PGA TOUR through the P.R. Open, Rafa Campos, made his way to three-consecutive events in 2017 because he placed within the top 10. By PGA standards, those players finishing in the top 10 of a PGA TOUR event automatically qualify for a top-tier event the following week. Campos went on from his Puerto Rico showing to play the Shell Houston Open, where he finished in the top 10, therefore sending him on to the Valero Open.

Today, Campos is one of the top players on the Web.com Tour, where aspiring golf professionals vie for bona fide exemptions to play on the PGA TOUR. The top-25 players on the Web.com Tour qualify for the PGA TOUR.

Campos, who is currently No. 3 on the Web.com Tour, recently won his first tournament early in the season, the Bahamas Great Abaco Classic. Another victory on the Web.com Tour will also grant him an exemption to play on the PGA TOUR. Campos tees off Thursday, Feb. 21, at 8:20 a.m.—all eyes will be watching.

Coco Beach Golf Resort

Par: 36-36—72

Yards: 7,569

Field: 132

FedEx Cup Points: 7,506 (300 to the champion)

Purse: $3.5 million

Winner’s Share: $540,000

TV: The Puerto Rico Open will be broadcast on the Golf Channel from Thursday to Friday from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. ET, Saturday from 2:30 to 5 p.m., and Sunday from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m.


Puerto Rico Open Helping the Kids


The Puerto Rico Open is not just a sporting event but also a boom for the tourism sector and government revenue, argued Pedro Zorrilla, producer of the event. Beyond its positive impact on the local economy, Zorrilla said that through the golf tournament there will be $1 million in donations to help kids.

“I want the Puerto Rico Open to also say: ‘The Puerto Rico Open gave $750,000 in sports equipment to Puerto Rico’s public schools, and in addition to that, gave $250,000 to 40 nonprofit institutions,” Zorrilla said.

The $250,000 will be divided between nonprofits for education and health, and will come from the Puerto Rico Open, but the $750,000 will be a collaboration between the Puerto Rico Open and Boston-based nonprofit organization Good Sports.

Zorrilla explained that Good Sports collaborated during recovery efforts after Hurricane Maria, donating $132,000 in sports equipment. In the current deal, if the Kids Pro Fund, established by the Puerto Rico Open, reaches $350,000, it will not just be matched but will also receive a $50,000 bonus.

As of presstime, the GoFundMe page had reached nearly $150,000. It closes Feb. 28. For P.R. Education Secretary Julia Keleher, this is an exciting opportunity she would like to see replicated, not just with other sectors because it is about “how we unite for the cause of education and kids and our future.”

In the short term, this initiative, which also accounts for students’ special needs, will help Keleher pursue a sports allocation in next year’s budget. “This [initiative] also helps in terms of next year’s budget to show [the government] how much investment is actually needed. If someone is going to donate needed equipment, that equipment has a price. It shows how much should be assigned in Education’s budget for sports because right now there is nothing,” Keleher explained. The Education secretary added that she would like to see sports leagues, like in other public-school systems, among other projects.

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