Is the PGA Tour's Michelin Championship on its death bed?

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

LAS VEGAS - The high-stakes showdown between two competing big-money backed million dollar Las Vegas shootouts is in many ways about who will get to dance on the grave of a PGA Tour tournament that isn't even dead yet.

Backers of both the Las Vegas Million Dollar Shootout and the sued and now postponed Las Vegas $3 Million Shootout believe the PGA Tour's Michelin Championship at Las Vegas is a teetering tournament, poised on the brink of extinction.

Sin City's had a PGA Tour event for 23 years, but there are some convinced that streak will end soon. With that in mind, both the Michigan-businessmen-backed Las Vegas Million Dollar Shootout and the alleged copycat Arizona-financed and Walters Golf-partnered Las Vegas $3 Million Shootout are attempting to position themselves to emerge as the tournament in Las Vegas.

"At this point, there's a good possibility there will be no major golf tournament in Las Vegas soon," said Ed May, the main force behind the Las Vegas Million Dollar Shootout. "Which will present a tremendous opportunity for a tournament that captures the public and sponsors' attention to step in.

"We're working very hard to be that tournament."

Vulnerable to vultures?

The Michelin Championship deathwatch centers around some harsh realities for the Las Vegas institution. In recent year, attendance has lagged and the buzz has become almost nonexistent around the event. Las Vegas' PGA Tour stop struggled to find a major sponsor after the 2002 tournament. The charity group that puts the tournament on, the Las Vegas Founders, had to put up the $4 million purse itself for 2003. The next year Vegas came so close to losing its tour event that when the official 2004 PGA Tour Schedule first came out, it did even have Las Vegas on it.

Instead, there was a big TBA next to the Oct. 4-10 week. Michelin stepped in and secured that week for Sin City again, but signed only a one-year deal.

Now the tire giant is committed to the tournament through 2006 according to a PGA Tour press release, but after that there's no guarantee. In fact, sources tell there is some question about how ironclad the contract is for even 2006, though Michelin did publicize the extension itself.

That's how it seems to go with Las Vegas' PGA event, someone's always trying to put the doubt out there.

Much of the Michelin Championship's woes can be traced to its spot on the golfing calendar. Coming late in the year (Oct. 12-16 in 2005) with other major money tournaments around it, Las Vegas' PGA event often struggles to draw an impact field. Tiger Woods actually won his first PGA Tour title here in 1996. But he hasn't been back since 1997.

Phil Mickelson gave the tournament an unexpected boost by committing last year, but then withdrew before the Saturday third round, citing food poisoning. His departure crippled weekend attendance.

Andre Stolz ended up holding off Tag Ridings and Harrison Frazar to win by one stroke. Stolz, Ridings, Frazar. Not exactly Tiger, Vijay, Phil. You try selling Andre Stolz.

The competing shootouts believe they would have a better a chance at marketing golf's Joe Schmoes. Those amateur shootouts believe they would have no names and more sizzle. For no one expects names when it's so-called average guys putting up $20,000 or $30,000 of their own money to play for potentially-life-changing, six- and seven- figure paychecks, just drama.

Think The Contender with golf clubs (the Golf Channel's Big Break isn't mainstream enough) and you have the idea.

"With the Tour, you're not sure if it can survive in Las Vegas," said Burton Kinerk, the prominent Tucson attorney running the $3 Million Shootout that postponed itself last week, well short of its wanted 128 golfer field. "We think we can be an event draw where the PGA Tour's not in Las Vegas. The public realizes we're not shooting for those top players, so they're not going to be disappointed.

"Instead, they'll be excited about seeing some good golfers who are average guys just like them playing for a million dollars."

An important stand

All this talk of the Michelin Championship being a tournament on its last legs does not exactly shock tournament director Charlie Baron. He's lived in Las Vegas where plays can come from all sides for 22 years now, after all. But Baron believes the would-be successor tournaments are underestimating the PGA Tour's commitment to Las Vegas."

"Well, (the PGA's) built two TPC courses here," Baron said of the PGA-run tracks. "I don't know of many other communities where they've done that, if any.

"That shows you the PGA's commitment to Las Vegas right there."

It could be argued that shows the PGA's belief in Las Vegas as a great place to make money off recreational golfers. The link to its PGA Tournament standing is much more tenuous. The PGA Tour knows giving Vegas a fall date puts it at a disadvantage. It is just as temperate and tour playable in January or February as it is in October.

Still, the tour's never given Las Vegas a showcase date on its early season West Coast swing.

"There probably is still some question about how big an event the Las Vegas community will support," said Joe Massanova, the marketing director at TPC Canyons, one of the two courses where the Michelin Championship is held. "It doesn't have the tradition or the crowds you see for the FBR Open at the TPC of Scottsdale for example.

"Las Vegas is a different kind of town and there are people who think it still has something to prove."

This year could be an important telling point that impacts the future of PGA Tour events in Sin City. For once, the Michelin Championship gets a scheduling break. The WGC American Express Championship is being held in San Francisco the week before. This means many of the PGA and European Tour stars will already be out on the West Coast, seemingly increasing Las Vegas' chance of attracting them.

Last year, Sin City had virtually no shot with the American Express Championship drawing most of the top players to Dublin the week before.

If a good, crowd-drawing field does not materialize this October, Las Vegas may never get one.

"Things do seem to be coming together for us," Baron said. "This is an important year, one that could solidify the tournament for years and years to come.

"We've been around for 23 years and plan on sticking around and continuing to get the word out on what a great golf destination Las Vegas is."

Upstarts seeing blood

Even as Baron talks confidently, the competing Las Vegas shootouts make competing pitches to TV networks with a similar theme: commit to us now and you could be involved with the tournament in Las Vegas in a few years.

ESPN, TNT and the Golf Channel have all listened, but also all declined to jump aboard so far.

"Getting a major sponsor and selling the tournament's much easier after the first year," May said. "It's much easier to sell it to television after you've proved you can pull it off."

May's confident the Million Dollar Shootout's unique format with teams of four true amateur golfers (no one who's held a card on any tour in the last seven years) competing in a true scramble will appeal because it's like nothing viewers have seen before. Kinerk is certain his NCAA Tournament style of match play tournament where the field is whittled from 128 to 64 to 32 to 16 to 8 to 4 to 2 to 1 with no second chances, seven wins to a million, fits better into today's sports culture.

Both believe they are sitting on the next big thing in Vegas sports, a PGA Tour replacement.

Considering those stakes, the lawsuit May's group filed charging the Kinerk tournament with blatant copyright infringement takes on even more meaning.

With the suit set to go into a judge's hands and nowhere close to the targeted 128 golfers signed up with their $30,000 entry fees, Kinerk's group elected to regroup and try again for the fall. The date could even be right around the Michelin Championship at Las Vegas date.

Not coincidently, the Michelin Championship also includes a heavy amateur component. Two pros play with two amateurs in each group. It used to be one pro and three amateurs, but the PGA Tour worked to cut it back and return to a more pro feel event.

Now the upstart amateur tournaments are looking to move in.

"Who knows how long the PGA Tour's going to be in Las Vegas," said Craig Ward, one of Ed May's partners in the Las Vegas Million Dollar Shootout. "There could be a void to fill in the near future."

When it comes to golf tournaments, people don't just anticipate the funeral. They bank on it.

Chris BaldwinChris Baldwin, Contributor

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Anonymous champions

    TX golfer wrote on: Apr 21, 2005

    So, maybe I hadn't heard of Andre Stolz either, but thumbs downs on you for referring to the champion of the featured tournament in the article in such a dim light. He'll only be anonymous if he doesn't keep on winning or break headlines in some scandalous situation.
    Frankly, I get tired of the Tiger, Vijay & Phil tournaments...of course they're great players, but it's still fun to watch the "no-names" have their day. Rich Beem (2002). Mark Brooks (1991).
    Look at the roster for the Shell Houston Open this week; yes, Vijay will be there, but so will John Daly, Matt Kuchar, Peter Jacobsen, Hank Kuehne, who are all fun to watch...and hopefully another anonymous golfer who will take home the title, which will mean something to him, the people who KNOW him & the fans like myself who give them the same respect as their colleagues. Doubt the heavys you refer to will be at Colonial either, but it's still one of the best stops on the tour.
    Of course, what do I know, I live in Austin; we only get what's been insultingly referred to the "beer truck tour" here. But to me it's a PGA event, with a lot of great players, and I work hard as a volunteer and promotional friend to make sure it stays in town... because (aside from being GOLF!) it's certianly the ONLY professional sporting event in town too.