DULUTH - A search to secure a long-term title sponsor for future events failed, leaving the Atlanta Classic Foundation with bad news Monday - it will no longer host a PGA Tour event.
The announcement was a blow to the foundation and to Gwinnett, which had hosted an annual PGA Tour golf tournament at Duluth's TPC at Sugarloaf since 1997. Before moving to Gwinnett, Atlanta Country Club had hosted the Atlanta Classic's PGA event since 1967.
But AT&T dropped its title sponsorship effective after last month's tournament, forcing officials to find a new sponsor or face the dire consequences that came Monday. Now Atlanta's only PGA stop will be the season-ending Tour Championship, an exclusive 30-player tourney at East Lake Golf Club that is different from a full-field event like the Classic with its 156 players.
"It was just one of those things, we searched and searched and searched (for a title sponsor)," said Dave Kaplan, the Atlanta stop's longtime tournament director. "The present economic climate made it very difficult ... I said before the tournament this year if we were looking 18 months before or 18 months after, I believe we certainly would have had a sponsor. But now is a tough time to be searching."
Kaplan said more than 150 companies were contacted about sponsorship deals, either through letters or presentations, but no sponsor was found. The search continued until this past Friday, when Kaplan and other Atlanta Classic officials met with PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem and got the unfortunate news.
A late attempt that didn't pan out was the formation of a group called "Classic Angels," a consortium of investors to support the tournament through a two-year period until another title sponsor could be found.
"One company, an Atlanta company, a new company that doesn't have a product yet and won't have one until June 2009, was interested from the very beginning," Kaplan said. "But I guess when you don't have product yet and you don't have the cash flow, that's tough. The price for being a title sponsor is between $7 and $8 million each year."
Since no company took on that large financial commitment, the PGA Tour took Atlanta off the 2009 schedule and prepared for modifications to next year's lineup.
"We regret having to notify the Atlanta Classic Foundation of this decision, but the absence of a title sponsor at this point has necessitated the move in order to solidify the schedule for the future," Finchem said in a Monday news release. "The Atlanta Classic Foundation has been a valuable partner of the TOUR since 1967 and has generated millions of dollars for local charities, primarily Children's Healthcare of Atlanta (CHOA)."
In hopes of maintaining donations to CHOA, AT&T has committed substantial donations the next two years. The tournament has contributed more than $13 million to CHOA, the tournament's primary beneficiary since 1981, and more than $16 million total to Atlanta area charities.
"We could not have been successful all these years without the hard work, dedication and enthusiasm of more then 1,600 volunteers," said Tom Coco, president of the Atlanta Classic Foundation. "They are the cornerstone of the tournament's success. While we are disappointed to lose our date on the PGA Tour, the Foundation will explore its options for the future in the coming weeks."
That future may include a local stop on the Champions Tour, which features the PGA's top over-50 players. Finchem's release stated that a "formal announcement is forthcoming" regarding a Champions event at Sugarloaf. He said the tour is working out details with a U.S.-based global company to become title sponsor of that tournament beginning in 2009.
The PGA's release also said the organization planned to talk with the Atlanta Classic Foundation about being involved in the Champions tourney.
"Our board hasn't had time to react to the Champions (event)," Kaplan said. "We'll have to see if that's an option the board wants to pursue."
Kaplan and Atlanta Classic officials worked diligently on Monday to get the word out to thousands of volunteers before they heard about news through the media. He expressed hope that the Classic foundation, whose board will meet Thursday, and its volunteers will be involved with Sugarloaf's Champions stop, but the news still was tough to take for the event's long-time supporters.
"It's quite a disappointment," said Duluth resident Ralph Mumme Sr., who has volunteered at the tournament since it came to Gwinnett in 1997. "I know a lot of people have worked hard to help Children's Healthcare of Atlanta. It's going to be missed."
The tournament's media director, John Marshall, echoed those thoughts. He has worked every Classic PGA tourney since 1986 and hasn't missed the event since 1972.
"It's just very, very sad," Marshall said. "It's just been a big part of my life and for a lot of people's lives for a long, long time."
SideBar: At a glance
A look at some important dates since Atlanta's long-running PGA Tour event moved to Gwinnett in 1997:
Scott McCarron wins first BellSouth Classic after move from Atlanta Country Club
Tiger Woods win BellSouth title in only Sugarloaf appearance
Tournament shifts to late-March, early-April date from previous May spot
Phil Mickelson wins at Sugarloaf for third time, including second in a row
Tourney moves back to May spot on PGA Tour schedule
PGA Tour announces end of Atlanta's PGA Tour stop because no title sponsor was found