RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. — Twelve months ago, there was no PGA Tour Champions event in the Coachella Valley, something that had been true in the desert since the 1990s. No pro-ams, no title sponsors, no star-studded field.
This week, at Mission Hills Country Club, the PGA Tour Champions roars back to life in the desert with the Galleri Classic, the newest event on the 50-and-older professional golf circuit. Going from no event to having an event ready to tee off has proven to be a busy, and at times surprising, year for the tour and tournament director Michelle DeLancy.
“I would say with every first year event, and I’ve gotten to be a part of a couple different events, you always don’t know until you get to the actual event to see how successful it will be,” DeLancy said. “Before we have even gotten to this event, we can see the amazing field of 78 players that will be playing, which is the very important piece of the tournament. People will show up and see who they want to see, and there are a lot of great guys on our list.”
From securing a strong field to selling pro-am spots to signing up volunteers for the event, almost everything a professional golf tournament needs had to be built from the ground up since it was announced last April the event was coming to Mission Hills. The Dinah Shore Tournament Course had been the home of the LPGA for 51 years, but comparing the Chevron Challenge and the Galleri Classic on the same golf course is something DeLancy didn’t want to happen.
“I am not trying to make us look different or compare us to other events that have been on this course,” said DeLancy, whose background includes running a PGA Tour Champions event in Seattle. “Overall, it is just a completely different event and a different experience, but all in the same fun of professional golf, coming out and being able to follow professionals in a fun way and good food to eat while you have different spots you can watch along the golf course.”
DeLancy and her Coachella Valley-based team have worked to spread the word of the new event, presenting the case for the tournament through community events with organizations like the City of Rancho Mirage, Visit Greater Palm Springs and the Rancho Mirage Chamber of Commerce.
“And we have partnered with Coachella Valley cancer beneficiaries to get involved in the community,” she said. “That was one of my big goals in moving here, was to get involved with the community and to get involved in partnerships that aren’t just a first-year event.”
Selling the unknown
A new event with no history is tough enough to sell, but selling it in the desert in March, one of the busiest months for social and sports activities, makes things more challenging. DeLancy admits the schedule has produced a wait-and-see attitude for some potential sponsors, partners and pro-am players.
“They are coming in and are interested, but a lot of them want to see how it is going to go and then be able to see what they can do for Year 2,” DeLancy said. “I get that. They don’t know what they don’t know. They are used to a tournament that has been here for 51 years, and there are new people here, and just exactly what does that mean for the golf fan who doesn’t know who a Champions tour player is or what that looks like or how great that they are or have the interaction with the amateurs and the fans and with others.”
Selling pro-am berths, an important part of the PGA Tour Champions business model, also has been different for DeLancy in her first year in the desert. The area’s lack of a corporate base means that big companies aren’t footing the bill for many of the $18,000-per-foursome pro-am groups on Wednesday or Thursday. The pro-am is a focus of the week at most PGA Tour Champions events, showcasing the golfer’s personality and interaction with playing partners or fans.
“The Champions tour, it’s not really fan driven, although it is a little bit,” said John Cook, a 10-time PGA Tour Champions winner who played golf for three decades at Mission Hills starting in the early 1970s. “There are some weeks when, man, it looks like a PGA Tour event. And there are other weeks where to be quite honest it’s a corporate-hospitality-entertainment week and it’s not reliant on the gate. It’s reliant on the pro-ams and the parties and entertainment and the hospitably, and that’s fine, too.”
DeLancy said individuals have stepped up to buy pro-am foursomes, but that the desert’s hectic sports schedule has hampered things. Indian Wells just wrapped up hosting the two-week BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament that drew 441,983 fans.
“Someone said that there are seven of the top 11 courses, the bigger courses in the area, that have their member-guest tournaments the same week as the Galleri Classic,” she said. “Those guys having the opportunity to play in the pro-am is not there. Those that do play will have a great opportunity. So a little bit different than what we expected in the pro-am sales.”
Other things have gone smoothly for the tournament. Hoping for 500 volunteers, more than 520 have signed up, DeLancy said, including some who live in areas where other PGA Tour Champions events are played. The tournament also has partnered with six desert organizations involved with cancer, a nod to tournament sponsor Grail and its Galleri blood test which can provide early detection for dozens of different types of cancers.
“We have a new title sponsor that is learning a lot. They are doing a great job of getting this in front of new people, and that was their goal in being part of a PGA Tour Champions event and the demographic that we have in the tournament and the demographic we have in the area,” DeLancy said. “We have a good chance to get eyes on their Galleri test but also being able to host their clients and that sort of thing.”
With everything in place, DeLancy and her team will now wait to see how many people come to Mission Hills this week to experience the pro-ams or the 54-hole $2.2 million tournament starting Friday. Like the LPGA that played on the Dinah Shore course for the last five decades, DeLancy believes the PGA Tour Champions is an experience that will immediately grab fans’ interest once it is seen in person.
“Once they get to the event, then they are pumped to come back,” she said. “But if they haven’t been there, then they don’t exactly get the magnitude of it to get to know what they could be missing or the experience they could have.
“But once we get them in the door, it is something they want to come back to,” she added.