News & Opinion

Greensboro’s future on Tour: ‘We matter’

GREENSBORO, N.C. – One of the first acts for Jay Monahan when he took over as PGA Tour commissioner in January was to institute a mission statement for his staff this year: “Make Mr. Palmer proud.” 

It's safe to say that the late Arnold Palmer would have approved of Monahan’s playing in the Wyndham Championship pro-am at Sedgefield Country Club on Wednesday, and that one of The King’s favorite events on Tour is in good hands.

A day earlier, tournament officials and Sam Saunders, Palmer’s grandson, dedicated a memorial plaque on the Wall of Champions behind the ninth green for the significant role that Palmer played in the tournament's history. 

Sam Saunders

PGA Tour player Sam Saunders endorses the plaque erected in honor of his grandfather, the late Arnold Palmer, at Sedgefield Country Club in Greensboro, N.C.

ADAM SCHUPAK
PGA Tour player Sam Saunders endorses the plaque erected in honor of his grandfather, the late Arnold Palmer, at Sedgefield Country Club in Greensboro, N.C.

Palmer, who attended Wake Forest University, recorded five top-5 finishes in 13 appearances at Sedgefield, and once cashed in a personal favor to bring the late entertainer Bob Hope to town for the pro-am. In 1965, Palmer was the top draw at the tournament's first "champion's banquet," and the story of his arrival is part of the rich 78-year history of the Tour's sixth-oldest event.

"The old Plantation Club was packed to the rafters with 800 or more enthusiastic fans and Palmer arrived on time – literally, about 7 p.m.," said Irwin Smallwood, the retired Greensboro News & Record sports editor for whom the tournament's media center is named. "Thing is, though he was in Greensboro, he was circling high above in his airplane [for more than an hour] but could not land because of bad weather. The late Bill Black, the brains behind the affair, was beside himself. Palmer could land in Charlotte, it turned out, and, luckily, Mayor Jim Melvin had friends in the Highway Patrol. At Melvin's pleading, the patrol picked him up at the Charlotte airport and raced him to the Plantation in 45 minutes flat. When Palmer walked into the place about 9:30, along with his patrol escort, the nice patrolman got a bigger ovation than Palmer from a crowd that by then was well-saturated from the long wait."

Said Saunders: "I can honestly say I don't know that he has more support in any town than Greensboro. They truly loved him here. You know, I think the feeling was mutual."

Jim Dodson, who wrote "A Golfer's Life," Palmer's autobiography, is a Greensboro native and resident, and says Palmer told him that his biggest regret outside of the majors was that he never won here. He came close. In 1972, Palmer held the lead on Sunday until he hit into the creek fronting the 16th green (now the par-3 seventh), took three swipes at his ball and made triple bogey. There's a photo in the clubhouse depicting Palmer's travails.  

Palmer, who died Sept. 25 at age 87, amassed 62 victories, including seven major championships, in a World Golf Hall of Fame career built on his relationship with golf fans. He would have been proud to know that the Wyndham Championship has won the PGA Tour's "fan friendly" award for the past two years.

Last year, Wyndham signed a 10-year contract extension, so the tournament's future is bright. All signs point to it maintaining its position as the final regular-season FedEx Cup event before the playoffs. Davis Love III, a three-time tournament champion, played with Stephen Holmes, Wyndham’s chairman and chief executive officer, and said, "Wyndham loves where it is."

It may love its future date even more if it means not having to bump heads with a major championship. Last week, the Tour and PGA of America announced that the PGA Championship would move to May and the Players Championship would make room for it by shifting to March beginning in 2019. How the rest of the schedule will be constructed is still a work in progress, but Wyndham tournament director Mark Brazil is confident that the long-running staple of the Tour in Greensboro will come out ahead.

"We matter. We're consequential," he said. "And we're going to get some breathing room from being on the heels of a major."

Brazil predicted the tournament would be held earlier in August, and likely be sandwiched between the WGC Bridgestone Invitational and the first FedEx Cup playoff event, presumably The Northern Trust.

Without post-major fatigue with which to compete and the likelihood that the playoffs will be reduced from four to three tournaments, the Wyndham stands a better chance of attracting a stronger field. World No. 9 Henrik Stenson and No. 24 Kevin Kisner are the only top-25 players competing this year (scores: http://bit.ly/2iaqCRq).

Brazil brushed aside any thoughts of moving to May, if as rumored the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte were to be discontinued, or of shifting to the fall portion of the schedule.

"May gets complicated with the PGA moving there," he said. "I can see how the fall can be appealing to some, but we want to be on network TV, preferably on CBS."

Brazil, who caddied for Monahan in the pro-am, described the task of sketching out the Tour's future schedule as the equivalent of doing "a hard jigsaw puzzle."

However the pieces may fit, Greensboro can rest assured that its place is secure.

“I would just tell you that this is and always will be a very important part of the PGA Tour and the FedEx Cup season,” Monahan said.

Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf World and The New York Times. He is the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: golfsdrivingforce@gmail.com; Twitter: @adamschupak