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Innisbrook's PGA Tour stop was in trouble until a local company stepped in

Peter Jones was nervous. The deadline to secure a title sponsor for the PGA tournament at Innisbrook had passed. If there wasn't an extension, the PGA Tour would pack its bags and leave after 31 years in Pinellas County.

No more money for area charities. No more exposure for Innisbrook and Tampa Bay. No more Copperheads, a group of volunteers from the business community that helps run the tournament.

"There was a lot of urgency and a lot of concern that we tried to keep to ourselves,'' said Jones, general chairman of the Copperheads. "I didn't want to be the general chairman that had to announce we no longer have a tournament after 31 years.''

As tournament officials held their breath, the PGA allowed an extension of the April 30 deadline so talks with a local company could continue. If those negotiations fell through, the tournament was gone, no questions asked.

Getting into this mess

The situation was not a first for the Copperheads and tournament director Gerald Goodman. From 1977-99, their event was called the JCPenney Classic, a PGA/LPGA team competition.

In 2000, its first year as a PGA event, it was the Tampa Bay Classic because it had no title sponsor. The PGA Tour subsidized it until 2003, when it became the Chrysler Championship.

PODS, an area storage company, signed a six-year deal that began in 2007, when the tournament debuted in its coveted March spot. A clause, however, allowed PODS to end the agreement after two years if the company was sold.

That's what happened, and for the third time, tournament officials scrambled to find a company willing to put up the $7 million it takes to sponsor a tournament.

This time, the PGA was not offering financial aid and was looking into other venues to fill the date. After a national search, a savior was found in the back yard.

"Things happen for a reason," Jones said. "And we ended up being the big winners."

Making a Transition

Goodman didn't want to attend the meeting with Transitions Optical representatives and tour officials at the company's Pinellas Park office. It was the Tuesday before last year's tournament, the night of the pro-am party, and the company had turned down previous minor sponsorship offers.

"We'd been down to Transitions in the past trying to sell some sponsor packs or tickets and had no success,'' said Goodman, tournament director since 1995.

"When the tour told me (Transitions) had contacted the tour about keeping the tournament in the community and that they'd like to make a pitch on the Tuesday afternoon before I was going to host the largest party of the tournament, I guess you could say I had a little doubt about going down there. I was in a huge time crunch. Thank goodness cooler heads prevailed and we went down there.''

From the beginning, tournament officials could tell this might be the fish they needed to land. With no other serious sponsors on the hook, this might be the only fish they could land.

"I started asking really serious, critical questions. And I think it clicked in their minds, 'Hey, they're serious about this,' '' said Dave Cole, managing director at Transitions Optical.

In fact, the company had been serious about promoting its line of transition lenses and eyewear globally for the past year. It wanted to find an effective way to advertise other than celebrity endorsement and media ads.

When PODS dropped out, a door opened.

"For us, it was a little premature,'' Transitions president Brett Craig said. "We were looking at doing this two or three years from now. But because of the timing of the PODS Championship, we said, 'Hey, let's jump on it.' ''

Negotiations dragged past the April deadline, finally resulting in a four-year deal. Transitions also became the official eyewear of the PGA Tour.

"I remember (tour commissioner Tim Finchem) saying that he thought the negotiations just sort of dragged on,'' Cole said. "We kept pushing them in certain areas. I think we got them out of their comfort zone a little bit. The relationship, so far, has been fantastic.''

Staying stable

A year ago, when the tour seemed to be rolling in money and flush with sponsors, the Tampa Bay and Atlanta stops were in danger of losing their events. Atlanta did.

Today, the Innisbrook stop is stable while many others are in question. The tour is heavily sponsored by the hard-hit financial and auto industries, including Northern Trust, Wachovia, Buick, Mercedes-Benz and BMW. FBR Capital Markets, which has sponsored the popular February stop in Phoenix since 2004, said last month it will not renew its contract after 2010. U.S. Bank is out after this season.

"A lot of my fellow tournament directors are very nervous,'' Goodman said.

Craig said he is not nervous about the future of his company.

"The industry is in fairly good shape,'' he said. "Granted, it's still facing the same headwinds that everyone is facing economically. But there aren't any companies in the optical product industry that are facing the dire straits that we are seeing in the financial industry or the automobile industry. Financially, I see ourselves as quite stable and having a good year in 2009.''

The tournament, meanwhile, is in Palm Harbor until at least 2012, which seems like a lifetime after the instability of the past three years.

"It's more of a relief,'' Jones said. "It would've been a sad day for our community to lose a PGA golf tournament.

"There aren't many cities that have this privilege.''

Rodney Page can be reached at page@sptimes.com, golf@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8810.

fast facts

Transitions Championship

What: A 72-hole PGA Tour event

When/where: Thursday-March 22; Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club, Palm Harbor

Purse: $5.4 million; winner's share is $972,000

FedEx Cup points: 3,513

Defending champion: Sean O'Hair

Qualifying: Monday at Fox Hollow Golf Club, Trinity

Schedule: Today — Live Your Vision Family Walk on Copperhead Course, 4 p.m.; barbecue, 5 p.m. Monday — Shelton Quarles Celebrity Pro-Am. Tuesday — Professional practice rounds. Wednesday — Transitions Championship pro-am.

Tickets: Daily, $40 in advance; $55 at the gate; weekly badge, $99. Patron Pak (two weekly patron badges, one parking pass), $199. Copperhead Pak (two clubhouse tickets good for any day, one daily parking pass, two rounds on Copperhead Course), $199. Hooter's Owls Nest (one ticket good for any day, one parking pass, wings, beer), $69. Fans 17 and younger are free. Available at www.transitionschampionship.com or area Publix.

College weekend: Students with a valid student ID can buy tickets for half-price Saturday and March 22.

Parking: Daily lot No. 1 pass is $20; weekly lot No. 1 is $50

TV: 3-6 p.m. Thursday, Golf Channel; 3-6 p.m. Friday, Golf Channel; 3-6 p.m. Saturday, Ch. 8; 3-6 p.m. March 22, Ch. 8

Innisbrook's PGA Tour stop was in trouble until a local company stepped in 03/14/09 [Last modified: Saturday, March 14, 2009 10:58pm]

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