The Southern Arizona sporting stage had never been bigger when one of the world’s most prestigious golf events relocated to Marana nearly a decade ago.
The best 64 golfers in the world were coming to enjoy our February sunshine, with the promise of playing on a Jack Nicklaus-designed course carved through the foothills of the Tortolita Mountains as part of a new Ritz-Carlton resort, supported by a community with an enduring history of professional golf, and blasted via live television, for 26 hours, to more than 200 countries.
And it all came with the endorsement of the big fella himself, Tiger Woods.
Life was good.
Eight years later, professional golf in Tucson is staring into the graveyard.
The World Golf Championship-Accenture Match Play Championship —one of Southern Arizona’s first-quarter economic tent poles -- is facing its potential swan song. Contracts for the event, to be held Feb. 19-23 (Wednesday through Sunday) at The Golf Club at Dove Mountain in Marana, expire after this year’s tournament.
Golfweek.com reported last month that Accenture, the global management-consulting company that has been the title sponsor since the inception of the Match Play Championship in 1999, would no longer back the tournament to the tune of about $10 million annually.
There has been no official announcement from Accenture or the PGA Tour.
“Accenture likes the Ritz and they like the golf course and stuff,” Marana Mayor Ed Honea said. “If Accenture does stay, I think Match Play will stay here. If it gets a new primary sponsor, then the PGA will have to look at where that sponsor is from or where it wants to go.
“We’re hoping they stay, and we’ll do anything we can within reason to keep them here. But I think it’s kind of out of our hands.”
If a sponsor wants to hold the event in Florida or California or Brazil or Dubai, then it’s adios, Tucson. Thanks for playing.
“At this time, neither the PGA TOUR nor Accenture has confirmed the report that Accenture is ending their sponsorship or that the Match Play Championship is leaving Tucson,” PGA Tour vice president of communications Laura Neal wrote in an e-mail to Inside Tucson Business.
“We are all placing 100 percent of our energy and focus on putting the best possible event together for 2014. After the event, we will evaluate the entire situation and make announcements relative to the future of our relationship with Accenture as well as the location of the tournament.”
As if on cue, Honea said all parties involved have been “tight-lipped” about the future of the Match Play Championship, but he doesn’t expect to have to wait long for an answer.
“Pretty soon after this tournament is over, they’re going to say what they’re going to do,” Honea said.
“The planning for the event takes months and months and costs a lot of money. You can’t just say, ‘All right, we’re going to wherever a couple of months before you go.’ They’re going to have to make some decisions about this pretty quickly after the tournament.”
If the tournament goes elsewhere, what then for the Tucson area?
The PGA Tour has been part of the local landscape since 1945, played continuously — with the exceptions of 1954 and 1989 -- in some format, in different times of the year, on courses throughout the city.
The Tucson Conquistadors, the non-profit group that handles sales and volunteer efforts for the WGC-Match Play Championship, has been at the forefront of organizing PGA Tour events since 1966 and isn’t ready to pack up the hospitality tents.
“Everything is a possibility,” said Judy McDermott, the executive director of the Conquistadors. “We’re leaving everything open.”
The Champions Tour, for golfers 50 and older, is one of those possibilities. The tour’s 2014 schedule shows a pair of three-week breaks from mid-February to mid-April.
“The Champions Tour definitely has some openings,” McDermott said.
Honea said he has “heard some rumblings” about the potential of a Champions Tour event in the Tucson area. The top golfers on that tour last season included Kenny Perry, Bernhard Langer, Fred Couples, David Frost, Duffy Waldorf, Michael Allen, Rocco Mediate, Corey Pavin, Mark O’Meara and Tom Lehman.
“Because those guys are well-known, a Champions Tour event would be a great event,” Honea said. “I think I know some of those names more than I do the current players.”
The money wouldn’t flow as copiously, however.
There has been no study on the economic impact of the Match Play Championship on the region, although the estimate is $75 million to $100 million annually. That comes from a University of Florida review of The Players Championship outside of Jacksonville, Fla. -- a comparable event and similar city size.
“When we started Match Play, we looked at those numbers and said the economic impact was $100 million,” McDermott said.
“The first two years, we hit it out of the park. Then the economy did what it did, and we took a hit like everybody did. Now we estimate it in the $75 to $100 million range because of the downturn in the economy.”
The Conquistadores have raised about $11 million from the Match Play Event for local youth charities, big and small, including the Boys and Girls clubs, Special Olympics, the YMCA and the First Tee program.
“It’s a big number,” McDermott said of the Conquistodores’ annual share of $1 million-plus from match play.
“We have a great community for fund-raising. If we don’t have Match Play, we’ll find another way to fund raise.”
Local restaurants and service providers directly benefit from the tournament’s out-of-town fans and international media, although there is no economic bump for the town of Marana.
“But it would have an impact on the Ritz-Carlton,” Honea said of the 253-room, five-star resort that opened in 2009.
Bonnie Crail, a spokesperson for the Ritz-Carlton, said she didn’t know if the resort would be involved in wooing another tournament if the Match Play Championship left town.
Honea calls the tournament a wash for the town’s coffers after expenses for things like traffic control, having to bring in police from Eloy and Casa Grande to supplement his officers.
The PGA Tour also doesn’t allow Marana to collect sales tax for anything sold on-site.
“They kind of hold that over your head,” Honea said. “If you want the tournament, you don’t do it. That was part of the thing here.”
Even so, it was quite a coup when the WGC event left rain-slogged La Costa Resort and Spa in Carlsbad, Calif., for Southern Arizona after the 2006 season. During one of the many storm delays at La Costa, Woods publicly noted that it was dry in Tucson.
“It’s not only a good fit, but it’s been a great fit here because of the weather in Southern Arizona,” said Gerald Goodman, the executive director of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship.
“Some people will mention that we had that brief little snow, but that is so unusual.”
Much has gone right weather-wise in Marana, but last year’s freak snowstorm blanketed the course on the first day of the tournament, spoiling one of the holy days on the golf calendar — all 64 golfers on the course in elimination matches. Unlike a typical stroke-play event, which builds toward a Sunday finish, the match play drama often peaks at the beginning.
And there was some of that fluffy white stuff during the 2011 tournament, too.
That’s a bit of bad luck, but its part of the tournament’s questionable momentum here. While the tournament’s future location and date probably rests in the hands of the sponsor, no matter what, it’s unlikely that Woods, or any other golfer, will lobby hard for the status quo.
Players don’t like the course
The Nicklaus-designed desert course, opened in 2009 after the tournament was played down the road at The Gallery Golf Club for two years, has not been well-received by the golfers.
A 2012 Golf World poll of 81 players revealed that the Golf Club at Dove Mountain was voted the second-worst on tour. Justin Rose, in a press conference last year, called the course “fiddly,” a mostly British word meaning awkward.
Adam Scott, the world’s No. 2-ranked player and the reigning Masters champion, is skipping Match Play this year, citing the course as an ill fit for his game. Scott, who has lost in the first round in each of the past three years, told Golfweek.com he would be more interested in the tournament if it were to move.
Woods, ranked No. 1, isn’t coming either. He originally planned to be at the Winter Olympics in Sochi the week of the tournament to support his girlfriend, Alpine skier Lindsey Vonn. When she withdrew because of injury, Woods decided to practice in Florida rather than play in Marana.
And popular Phil Mickelson, ranked fourth in the world, is skipping the event for the fourth time in five years in order to vacation with his family.
The PGA Tour prefers to keep its events on short contracts for schedule flexibility, so this isn’t the first time Southern Arizona has had to sweat out an announcement after the original four-year deal expired.
“When we first got the Accenture Match Play Championship, we were obviously pleased,” McDermott said. “When we had it two years, we were happy. When we had it four years, we were happy. Five, happy. We never thought in our wildest dreams, we would have it for eight.”
That’s eight years of the kind of advertising, with majestic saguaros serving as backdrops for the Golf Channel and NBC cameras, which the region couldn’t otherwise buy.
If this is the end of match play here, the Conquistadores are committed to continuing professional golf in Tucson, even as the international spotlight fades.
“I think with our courses and our beautiful climate, we could land another one,” Honea said. “Would it be as big as the World Golf Championship? Probably not, but you do the best you can.”