Professional golf returns to Gwinnett on frenetic schedule

Stan Hall

Stan Hall

DULUTH -- In the simplest terms, a professional golf tournament needs three things: A willing location, a generous sponsor and interest from the professional tour.

After 12 years of hosting a PGA Tour stop at TPC Sugarloaf, Stan Hall knew he had a location. The executive director of the Gwinnett Sports Commission just needed to play Yente to a tour and a sponsor.

So he, with other members of the sports commission, began approaching both sponsors and tours. They began with what they knew, the PGA Tour, but quickly changed direction toward the Champions Tour, the circuit for 50-plus golfers whose age limits their ability to compete with the younger golfers over four days on the PGA's regular tour on a weekly basis.

"It was just obvious to me that it was a great demographic fit for Sugarloaf, it was a great demographic fit for Gwinnett County and we starting putting all of our attention on that," Hall said of the Champions Tour.

At the time, Hall and the sports commission approached possible title sponsors. In what Hall called a "Wallenda walk," referencing the tightrope walking troupe, the 30-year member of the district attorney's office played arbiter, figuratively running from tour to sponsor until within almost a week of each other both Mitsubishi Electric Cooling and Heating and the Champions Tour signed a four-year contract to return golf to Gwinnett County.

For the Champions Tour, an event in the Atlanta area had been bandied through its offices for a number of years and in 2009 nearly solidified a return until losing the all-important title sponsor in what Champions Tour president Mike Stevens called the "11-and-a-half hour."

"We knew the TPC Sugarloaf would be a viable golf course to host the event," Stevens said. "Then we just did a little research on the Gwinnett County Sports Commission and their abilities to host an event like this. It didn't take a lot of time to vet that."

The contracts were signed in late October, the official announcement of the tournament came the first week of November. And then the work began.

"Everyone said it takes a year to put on an event," Hall said, noting this tournaments six-month lead and then added, laughing. "It takes a year."

Since hosting a tournament at Sugarloaf isn't a totally foreign prospect, the event's staff wasn't starting with the basement of a skyscraper, rather the 23rd floor.

Hall quickly hired Andrew Webber as tournament director. Webber worked under the BellSouth and AT&T tournament director Dave Kaplan for all 12 years Sugarloaf hosted the event.

"Andrew knows where every wire is buried on this golf course because he buried most of them," Hall said. "He knows where every little coupling is. As far the vendor ties, the people who mark and stake off the course, the people who build the skyboxes, the people who do the scaffolding and on and on and on. All I had to do was get Andrew to open up his file and he knew everybody on there by first name. We didn't have to start from scratch."

Hall also poached Elissa Dooman for his director of golf operations. Dooman came to Gwinnett from Tampa where she worked as tournament manager of a Champions Tour event. She was looking for work after that tournament lost its title sponsor, Outback. And Gwinnett not only took Dooman, but the dates of the Tampa event for the Greater Gwinnett Championship.

"It really couldn't have worked out any better," Hall said of the date and also of adding Dooman to his staff.

Since signing weeks after the tournament's inception Webber, Dooman, Hall and the rest of the staff never stopped working. Webber insists a day hasn't passed where he didn't work on the tournament.

"It's been busy, it's been lot of fun," Webber said. "In a perfect world I would love 18 months."

With two weeks before tournament week, stands are rising above the 18th green and hammers echo across Sugarloaf. The leaderboard looms over the finishing hole's signature water hazard.

"I am not surprised (with how quickly things came together)," Dooman said. "As far as the buildout process and the foundation that we put into it, there was a lot of stuff that had to get done.

"When I signed on I knew the time schedule. I knew, Andrew and I were both aware of how much work it was going to be. We were prepared for it."

The staff admit the truncated timeframe limited the scope of their vision for the tournament and limited the possibility of sponsors. By November, most potential sponsors' budgets were set for 2013 and only so much can be created and built over an unpredictable Georgia winter.

"This first year, because our time frame is so short, our overall footprint is not as wide as the BellSouth Classic was all those years," Webber said. "This first year it is not as big throughout the course."

Smaller, but there will still be the usual tertiary activities around the course, with most of the action centered around the final hole. There will be two days of pro-am rounds on Tuesday and Wednesday, a banquet at the Gwinnett Center ballroom, a kids' day on Saturday with local area mascots and other children's activities. The course will also host Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan's golf tournament fundraiser Monday to benefit Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, one of the five charitable sponsors of the tournament.

"I'm excited for people to show up and to embrace," Webber said. "It's been 10-plus years since the Champions Tour has been in the metro-Atlanta area. The Champions Tour is a different tournament and I think once people get out here and they experience it, they are going to be hooked. It's hard to describe until you experience it. It's more relaxed, it's more fun."

The field of golfers is as strong as could be expected. It won't be finalized until Friday, but golfers committed to come include Ben Crenshaw, Steve Elkington, Brad Faxon, Fred Funk, Jay Haas, Hale Irwin, Tom Kite, Rocco Mediate, Larry Nelson and Tom Watson.

"We wanted our first year to be a strong field and it is, it's impressive," Hall said.

"We've been able to do what we needed to do to get that event off the ground. It's going to be a great event this year, but I think it will be twice the event next year."

-- What: PGA Champions Tour Greater Gwinnett Championship

-- When: April 15-21

-- Where: TPC Sugarloaf

-- TV: The Golf Channel