News & Opinion

Sioux Falls tees up Super Bowl of Plains

It may be only Week 3 of the NFL season, but don't tell that to Hollis Cavner, the longtime tournament organizer of several PGA Tour and Champions Tour events. As far as he is concerned, the Sanford International is going to be Super Bowl Sunday for the Great Plains.

Today at Minnehaha Country Club in Sioux Falls, S.D., marks the state’s Champions Tour debut, and it's a big deal to residents (tee times). It's also a throwback to the early barnstorming days of the senior circuit and proof that while the roundbelly tour may never steal headlines from Tiger Woods and the PGA Tour like it did in the era of Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino, it still lives on as the world's greatest corporate outing.

In the senior circuit’s formative years, the aging pros barnstormed to cities such as Lexington, Ky., and Syracuse, N.Y., untapped golf markets bypassed by the “junior tour.”

“We played $50 pro-ams in places you could hardly get to if you rode a mule,” Don January, one of the founding members of the Senior Tour, said with just a hint of hyperbole.

Cavner, whose sports-marketing firm Pro Links Sports is behind the Sanford International, organized the 3M Championship in Minneapolis for 26 years. Part of that event's promotion to the PGA Tour starting in 2019 required a promise to find a replacement on the schedule for the seniors. The goal seems so simple: create a community-driven event that prides itself on being the equivalent of football’s Green Bay Packers.

There's a longstanding PGA Tour belief that for a tournament to be successful nationally, it first must be successful locally. The Champions Tour has prospered in places such as West Des Moines, Iowa; Cary, N.C.; and Endicott, N.Y., former home of the B.C. Open. What these locales share in common is a small- to mid-market vibe where professional golf is the only game in town. Developing community involvement in larger markets such as Chicago, Los Angeles and New York has been a challenge.

“There are too many options,” Cavner said. “You just blend into the scene. In a place like Sioux Falls, we’re their Super Bowl.”

South Dakota is no stranger to golf. The Web.com Tour (from 1990 to 2001) and various mini tours visited these parts at Dakota Dunes and Hillcrest Golf and Country Club (for a popular Dakotas Tour pro-am event) in the southeastern part of the state. Plus, the state has sent brothers Tom and Curt Byrum to the PGA Tour, and Kris Tschetter and Kim Kaufman to the LPGA. But having the likes of John Daly, Colin Montgomerie and Steve Stricker compete for a purse of $1.8 million generates even more interest in the sport.

This tournament is the latest effort to make the Sioux Falls area a sports destination. Just in the past few years, the city has hosted an NCAA Division I women's regional basketball tournament, the Division II national men's and women's basketball championships, the NAIA national men's tournament and NCAA Frozen Four regional. The economic benefit and prestige that these events bring are a huge boost to Sioux Falls.

Two-time U.S. Open champion Andy North, who will be the host of the Sanford International, played an integral role in bringing the health-care provider into the fold. North met Kelby Krabbenhoft, Sanford’s president and chief executive officer, a decade ago when Krabbenhoft's son, Joe, played basketball for the University of Wisconsin in North's hometown of Madison and struck up a friendship. North, who served as chairman of the Sanford International board of trustees in 2016 and remains involved on the board, said it was an 18-month process to take the tournament from concept to fruition. A five-year agreement is in place through 2022.

"Sanford is a company not a lot of people know about, but they are building clinics all over the world," North said. "We've seen how the Champions Tour in Madison worked [at the American Family Insurance Championship]. We think Sioux Falls is the same kind of city. It's a regional event. There's nothing else like it."

Sanford tapped into another personal connection to bring Jack Nicklaus onboard as the tournament ambassador. Last year, Denny Sanford, the philanthropist for whom Sanford Health is named, and the company jointly gave $7 million to the Nicklaus Children’s Hospital, the flagship of the Miami Children's Health System, to sequence the genes of nearly 1,000 Latinos and Hispanics in an effort to better understand the population’s health needs.

The Mount Rushmore State will have Nicklaus, one of the figures on golf's Mount Rushmore, involved in a nine-hole match-play exhibition with North against Dave Stockton and Graham Marsh rounding out the foursome. The EMC Legends Series will take place at 3 p.m. Saturday. Following the exhibition, Nicklaus and North will host a golf clinic for children.

"There are so many positives to bringing a senior tournament to South Dakota for the first time," said Nicklaus, noting, among others, the nexus between professional golf and charitable endeavors. "I just see it as a win-win all the way around."

Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf.com and The New York Times. He is the winner of the National Sports Media Association's "Golf Article of 2017," and the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: golfsdrivingforce@gmail.com; Twitter: @adamschupak