Texas Tour Stops & Courses Stay in the News

By: Steve Habel

The Champions Tour - which got its start in Austin - will keep its presence in central Texas thanks to a last-minute reprieve and sponsorship agreement that combines the main event with a popular pro-am featuring past winners of the Heisman Trophy.

The Champions Tour tournament formerly known as the FedEx Kinko's Classic will return next year to the Hills Country Club as the Triton Financial Classic under a three-year commitment announced October 21 at a press conference that included PGA Tour players Tom Kite and Ben Crenshaw and Texas Governor Rick Perry.

FedEx Kinko's ended its six-year sponsorship of the event when its contract expired this year. Organizers thought in April they had a new sponsor in Time Warner, but those negotiations never fully materialized. Tournament organizers, community leaders and tour officials worked aggressively to find a sponsor amid increasingly brittle economic circumstances. The tour postponed the release of its 2009 schedule as tournaments without title sponsors in Austin, Boston and New York fought for survival.

"It was looking bleak, to be honest," Crenshaw said last week at the Champions Tour event in San Antonio. "When it came right down to it, enough people thought it was important enough to save the tournament and keep us in Austin."

The Boston and New York tournaments likely will be absent from the 2009 schedule, according to tour officials close to those negotiations. "We are both encouraged and delighted that a key event on the Champions Tour will continue its presence in Austin thanks to Triton Financial," said Mike Stevens, President of the Champions Tour.

Austin's tour stop had been played since 2003 in either April or May, but in 2009 the Triton Financial Classic will be held June 1-7, 2009.

The Champions Tour, for players 50 and older, began 30 years ago in Austin as an exhibition called The Legends of Golf at Onion Creek, which is south and east of the city. The tour left Austin in 1995 after a dozen years at Onion Creek and five at Barton Creek Resort's Fazio Foothills track. It returned in 2003.

Players reacted with relief and gratitude that the Austin event will continue. "The Austin market is somewhere we should be," said 2006 FedEx Kinko's Classic champion Jay Haas.

The Jack Nicklaus-designed course at The Hills has always been a favorite among the senior set because of its typically firm fairways, sparse rough and lightning-fast but true greens. On the card at 6,965 yards, The Hills plays much shorter because of its downhill shots and the fact that placement is paramount.

"We never gave up hope that we could keep the tournament in Austin," Kite said. "Almost everybody would have Austin ranked as one of their favorite Tour stops, and some consider it the best event on our tour."

With the new sponsorship agreement, the Champions Tour will maintain three tournaments in Texas, including events in Houston and San Antonio. The senior circuit has a history with football. An event known as the NFL Golf Classic played from 1993 to 2002 in New Jersey paired golfers with former NFL players.

Two years ago Triton Financial, a nationally recognized, Austin-based alternative investment company founded in 2002, began hosting a reunion of Heisman Trophy winners in Austin that included a golf outing. Triton Financial is an official partner of the Heisman Trophy Trust and employs several Heisman Trophy winners and former NFL and collegiate athletes. Utilizing those relationships, the firm plans to involve additional local and national sports celebrities in the Champions Tour.

"Meshing these two together is going to take these two tournaments to a much higher level," said Kite, who has played in the Heisman Trophy winner's event with former NFL stars such as Emmitt Smith and Lynn Swann, "In the next couple of years, I'd like to be able to play with Colt McCoy," Kite, the former Longhorn, added, referring to Texas' current record-setting quarterback.

Texas Open will move to TPC San Antonio in 2010

It was no surprise when PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem announced October 23 that the Valero Texas Open will be moving to the AT&T Oaks Course at TPC San Antonio, once the facility is completed and ready for play, likely in 2010. In fact, the move may have been the Tour's worst-kept secret.

Finchem spoke of the tournament's future move during a Founder Membership launch event in the Alamo City. The confirmation of a site change follows an announcement in June that the Valero Texas Open is moving from the PGA Tour Fall Series to May in 2009 to become part of the FedEx Cup competition.

"I'm very pleased to confirm what long has been speculated, that the Valero Texas Open will be moving to TPC San Antonio," Finchem said. "Combined with the shift to May, we believe the Valero Texas Open is well positioned for the future in terms of growth and continued strong charitable contributions."

The Valero Texas Open recently announced that it generated a PGA Tour-record $8.5 million for charity in 2008. Since Valero Energy Corporation became the title sponsor in 2002, the tournament and the Valero Texas Open Benefit for Children Golf Classic have combined to generate nearly $38 million in charitable contributions.

TPC San Antonio is a 36-hole golf facility adjacent to the JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort & Spa that currently is under construction. The resort complex is scheduled to open by early 2010. Greg Norman has designed the AT&T Oaks Course, with input from Sergio Garcia as the player consultant. Pete Dye is designing the AT&T Canyons Course with the assistance of Champions Tour member Bruce Lietzke.

The Texas Open has been held on the resort course of the Westin La Cantera Resort's golf club since 1995 and has enjoyed unprecedented growth during that time. Next year's tournament is scheduled for May 14-17 at La Cantera.

"We look forward to hosting the Valero Texas Open for the 15th time at La Cantera this coming May," said Tony Piazzi, president and CEO of Golf San Antonio, which produces the Valero Texas Open. "The success we've enjoyed there has put us in a position to take advantage of the tremendous growth opportunities that TPC San Antonio will offer."

TPC San Antonio on Schedule with Construction

Sergio Garcia, PGA Tour player consultant for the Greg Norman-designed AT&T Oaks course, visited the TPC San Antonio on September 22, a day after the conclusion of the Ryder Cup. Much of Garcia's time was spent reviewing the 16th, 17th and 18th holes, which are under construction. He also took time to review the maturation and grow-in progress throughout the remainder of the course.

A recent tour of the site showed that roughly half of the Oaks course, which is on pace to open a few months ahead of Dye's layout, has been grassed in above a clay-capped, closed-loop irrigation system designed to catch water and recycle it back onto the course, protecting the valuable Edwards Aquifer water supply.

While still rough and immature throughout, the Norman design is emerging as a rugged test for players, whether they're guests at the centerpiece J.W. Marriott Resort, also under construction, or the PGA Tour players scheduled to be on site in May 2010.

Framed by a native landscape still thick with mesquites, oaks and long grasses, fairways and greens are guarded by deeply gouged bunkers and landing areas pinched as tight as 25 yards wide in some spots. A practice facility for the Norman complex is also being built between the tee boxes on the Nos. 1 and 10 holes.

The grassing of the course likely will be completed this year, finishing up with the 17th and 18th holes that are still being shaped and graded. Along with putting sand in bunkers and any overseeding that must be done, the Oaks Course will be allowed to mature for much of the 2009 growing season. Limited play may be allowed by next fall, with a grand opening set for early 2010.

Dye's Canyons Course, which sports more changes in elevation and views than Norman's flatter layout, will open shortly after. The city's Champions Tour event, the AT&T Championship, would be held there each October.

Steve Habel is an Austin, Texas-based journalist and Cybergolf's Southwest Correspondent. Since 1990, he has traveled the globe covering news, business and sports assignments for various news bureaus, newspapers, magazines and websites. He also contributes to Business District magazine in Austin as managing editor and is the Texas football beat writer and a contributing editor for Horns Illustrated, the Austin-based magazine for University of Texas sports. Habel writes a weekly golf column for The River Cities Tribune in Marble Falls, Texas, and is a member of the Texas Golf Writers' Association.