Grey Goose Gateway Tour heating up Arizona, Myrtle Beach

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

Grayhawk Raptor CourseTitle sponsors, rich purses and top notch courses buoy fledgling tour

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - What do a computer company with a bovine mascot and a top shelf vodka company with a goose moniker have in common? Ifyou answered "inebriated IT guys," try again. Gateway Computer Company andGrey Goose Vodka recently combined their collective financial prowess tosponsor one of the hottest professional golf proving grounds this side ofthe Nationwide Tour.

The Grey Goose Gateway Tour (GGGT) will kick off two simultaneous swings inPhoenix/Scottsdale and Myrtle Beach this summer. Action gets underway at theLegacy Resort and Raven South Mountain in Phoenix, and the Prestwick CountryClub in Surfside Beach, S.C. on June 1. Up and coming young guns like KevinStadler (Walrus, Jr.) and Boyd Summerhays will vie for a total payout thatis expected to eclipse the Golden Bear and NGA Hooters Tours combined, in2004.

Depending upon the number of entrants, tournament purses range from $83,500 to $116,000. A wallet-stuffing $620,000 coffer is up for grabs at the Tour Championship held at Grayhawk's Raptor course in December. What's more, Grey Goose sweetened the deal in April by earmarking an additional $300,000 to be spread among the 04 purses. With entry fees set at $17,500 for a single tour series, players are able to minimize risk while maximizing potential rewards.

Scottsdale roots

The Grey Goose Gateway Tour's popularity is surging in the Grand Strand due to its 14-event schedule contested on top area courses. It's also caught on with aspiring Southern California golf pros who compete in the Tour's 11-event Pacific Series held on top tracks around the San Diego area. But the Tour's home and heart are in Scottsdale.

The GGGT was founded in August 2001 by Chris Stutts, a former Arizona StateAll-American golfer who led the Golden Bear Tour money list in 1997 andplayed on the Nike Tour in 1998. In the late '90s, Stutts and Gateway CEOTed Waitt developed a sponsorship program for up to 30 Nike Tour players.The program was so successful that Stutts eventually approached Waitt aboutstarting a brand new developmental tour based in the golfing hotbed ofPhoenix/Scottsdale.

Talking Stick in Scottsdale"Ted and Gateway had a strong interest in golf and helping golfers get tothe next level," Stutts says. "The idea was to give guys the chance to getto the PGA Tour. We didn't realize it would take off so fast."

The tour was an instant success when hit the Valley of the Sun in 2002; in large part because of the attractive purses, but also because Stutts made sure the tournaments were held on the area's best courses. The tour sold out in its first year, two years ahead of schedule, according to Stutts.

"It was amazing to watch it catch on," Stutts say. "That sort of demandtells you there are a lot of hungry players out there with PGA Touraspirations."

As it turned out, players were willing to sweat out the desert's triple digit summer temperatures for the chance to hone their skills at clubs like Mirabel, Whirlwind, Grayhawk and Talking Stick. Heading into the 2003 season Stutts had a waiting list of over 90 players. Rather than turn them away, he and Waitt expanded the tour to Myrtle Beach.

"Myrtle Beach basically happened over night," Stutts says. "We didn't thinkwe'd be full in Arizona by then, much less expanding to the beach."

Myrtle Beach a natural fit

Professional golf and the Grand Strand have gotten on like oil and water inrecent years. The LPGA's City of Hope Myrtle Beach Classic left WachesawPlantation East when it couldn't pin down a title sponsor. The Senior TourChampionship pulled the plug after an almost decade long run at the DunesClub and TPC of Myrtle Beach. And the Canadian Tour cancelled its SouthCarolina swing at Barefoot Resort this year for financial reasons.

Enter the GGGT. While it's not exactly a replacement for the likes of AnnikaSorenstam and Tom Watson, having any level of professional golf played inMyrtle Beach is a blessing in the eyes of local golf professionals.

Tiger's Eye Golf Links"Getting professional golf back in the Strand is good for everyone," saysJay Smith, long time head professional at Prestwick Country Club. "Obviouslythere's a big difference between the Champions Tour and the Grey GooseGateway in terms of galleries and coverage. But we get some members who comeout and watch and the local paper will cover the event."

The Beach series will be contested on some of the Grand Strand's most revered layouts. Prestwick, designed by P.B. Dye, is widely considered one of the most gut wrenchingly difficult tracks in town. Tidewater Golf Club, scheduled to host an event Sept. 7-10, is ranked No. 85 on GOLF Magazine 's "Top 100 You Can Play" list for 2002. Tiger's Eye, a Tim Cate design slated for an Aug. 24-27 tilt, was recently ranked as one of the top courses in North Carolina by Golf Digest.

"Chris did a great job of getting the guys on the best courses in town,"Smith says. "Prestwick played as the toughest course last year and most thecourses on the schedule will challenge these guys."

Future looks bright

Stutts says he wasn't surprised when Grey Goose committed as a co-title sponsor back in April. The company had demonstrated a healthy interest in the golf business via its sponsorship of a popular roundtable program on The Golf Channel. And Stutts says he and Grey Goose owner Sidney Frank had been working on a deal since January.

"Getting Grey Goose on board is awesome," says Stutts. "The additional moneythey committed goes a long way towards pursues and charitable donations. Itis a tremendous opportunity for the Tour to expand."

That Stutts is talking expansion entering the tour's third season is an industry rarity. Start-up professional golf tours usually have all the stability of dot-com stocks. Many suffer from long term sponsorship woes while others flop due to paltry purses and exorbitant entry fees.

Not the case with GGGT, however.

The Grey Goose title sponsorship is a three-year agreement that will lead toa growth in tour purses and charitable donations over the next few years.Gateway will also remain a co-title sponsor, giving the fledgling tour asecond source of stability. In 2003, just its second year, the tour paid out$3.4 million - an increase of $1 million over the 2002 season. Stutts sayshe's already exploring a fourth summer series in another Southeasternlocation.

"We just want to grow a little year by year," Stutts says. "We want to be the top tour at our level. We're not looking at competing with the Nationwide Tour."

Shane SharpShane Sharp, Contributor

Shane Sharp is vice president of Buffalo Communications, a golf and lifestyle media agency. He was a writer, senior writer and managing editor of TravelGolf.com from 1997 to 2003.


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