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Jeff Sanders brings pro golf back home

Pumpkin Ridge will see big talent, big stakes next August


If there is anyone who understands how competitive PGA Tour golf is, it’s Jeff Sanders.

Sanders worked the fringes of the tour for five years in the early 1980s after a stellar collegiate career at Oregon, with two top-15 finishes, $63,000 in prize money and a battle every year to regain his tour card.

Fast forward 30 years, and Sanders — as CEO and president of Jeff Sanders Promotions — can identify with those members of the Web.com Tour vying for preservation or advancement in the world of professional golf.

So it is fitting that JSP is bringing the Web.com Tour to the City of Roses with the WinCo Foods Portland Open in August 2014 at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club’s Witch Hollow (private side) course.

The Web.com Tour is an extension of the PGA Tour, which features the top 200 players in the world. The next 200 play the developmental Web.com Tour, and they’ll be in Portland next summer.

“The difference between the players on the Web.com Tour and the PGA Tour is the depth of a dollar bill,” Sanders says. “I mean that sincerely. There are only 400 guys in the world who play PGA Tour-level golf, and we’ll have a good portion of them at our event.”

The PGA’s satellite tour was formed in 1990 and has undergone a change in umbrella sponsorship four times, from the Ben Hogan Tour to the Nike Tour to the Buy.com Tour to the Nationwide Tour and finally to the Web.com Tour, which last year signed a 10-year, $100 million sponsorship contract. This year, there are 25 tournaments with $17 million in prize money. The WinCo Foods Portland Open will feature a purse of $800,000, with a $150,000 first prize, as the tour’s last regular-season stop prior to a four-tournament final series.

Sanders has intimate knowledge of the Web.com Tour. He formed his golf promotions company in 1989 and staged the first Albertsons Boise Open the next year. The 24th running — as always, staged by JSP — is July 22-28. JSP also runs another Web.com tourney, the Winn-Dixie Jacksonville (Fla.) Open, and next year will stage a total of six men’s tournaments.

But Sanders, a Sunset High grad and Portland resident, is busting buttons over returning men’s pro golf to his hometown.

“It’s our first home game” on the Web.com Tour, says Sanders, 57, who last promoted events here in the late 1990s with the U.S. Men’s Amateur (1996) and the U.S. Women’s Open (1997), both at Pumpkin Ridge. “And it’s great that we’ll have it at Pumpkin. So much history there of championship golf.”

This will be the first men’s PGA Tour event in Portland since the 1994 Nike Tour championships were staged at Pumpkin Ridge’s Ghost Creek (public side). That event was put on by JSP.

The WinCo Foods tournament also will be the first labeled the “Portland Open” since 1966, when Bert Yancey beat out Billy Casper and earned the $6,800 first prize. That was the last of a string of 13 Portland Opens dating to 1936. Over the years, Portland Open champions included Casper and Jack Nicklaus (three times apiece), Sam Snead and Ben Hogan.

The city has played host to a Champions Tour major and to Peter Jacobsen’s Fred Meyer and Umpqua Bank challenges, the latter two invitationals featuring many of the game’s greats. They presented great golf for the area’s golf fans, but they were exhibitions.

The PGA Tour has made an important change that will benefit the WinCo Foods Portland Open. In previous years, those who went through the qualifying school to earn tour cards went straight to the PGA Tour. This year for the first time, the Web.com Tour is the pathway to the PGA Tour. The top 25 finishers at the “Q” school will now qualify for the Web.com Tour, not the PGA Tour.

And the WinCo Foods Portland Open couldn’t be in more meaningful position for the Web.com players. The top 75 players on the Web.com Tour advance to the final four events, all with a $1 million purse. Only the top 125 money-winners on the PGA Tour automatically retain tour cards for the following year. The top 25 money-earners at the end of the Web.com Tour season earn PGA Tour cards. That means 50 of the 200 PGA Tour cards will come from “Q” school and the Web.com Tour.

With the WinCo Foods Portland Open positioned as the final Web.com regular-season stop, the player pool should be overflowing.

“Our product just got a lot better,” Sanders says. “We’ll have an elevator of entrants. Some guys on the PGA Tour (who aren’t among the top 125) will want to play our event. They will figure they can win the event and get their card in one week. And a lot of guys on the Web.com Tour will be playing for their lives our week.”

Satellite tour graduates have posted 360 wins over the years on the PGA Tour, including 17 majors, Sanders says. Last year, all four majors were won by those who had played the Nationwide or Web.com circuits.

“There are more players on the PGA Tour who have played this tour than haven’t,” Sanders says. Now, all the good young players will have to come up through the Web.com Tour ranks. Players such as 19-year-old Jordan Spieth, who won last week’s PGA John Deere Classic. And Will Wilcox, who shot a final-round 59 at the recent Web.com Tour Utah Championships.

“There are so many great young players,” Sanders says. “It’s just so competitive out there. I couldn’t be happier to see some of the guys with so much talent have a place to play.”

The other component of the WinCo Foods Portland Open is charity, which Sanders calls JSP’s “scorecard” through the years. Last year, he says, the Winn-Dixie Jacksonville Open netted $2 million for charity, the Albertsons Boise Open $1.3

million.

JSP will implement its patented “Tickets Fore Charity” program that has raised $70 million since 1989. In Portland, Sanders’ goal is to have from 200 to 300 charities selling tickets.

“We’ll teach charities how to sell them, and they keep 100 percent of the money,” Sanders says. “In addition, WinCo Foods has agreed to give 100 percent of the gate back to charity. In Boise last year, 84 charities sold more than $1 million in tickets. Boise got there in its seventh year; I would hope (Portland) can get there faster than that.

“I know we’ll be over $500,000 in the first year here. I can make that promise to Portland right now. I’d like to think we can get to $750,000 in Year One. Then we’ll build it from there. It will take us three years to get it where we want.”

This is WinCo Foods’ first foray into sporting event sponsorship, incidentally. Winco is based in Boise, and Sanders became acquainted with high-ranking officials of the company while staging his annual tournament there.

“They want to give back to the Portland-area families,” Sanders says. “That’s the No. 1 reason why they’re doing this.”

Participants in next year’s WinCo Foods Portland Open match talents on a Witch Hollow layout that probably will be set at par 70 instead of 72, with a couple of the par-5s playing as long par-4s.

During a media event at Pumpkin Ridge a few weeks ago, Web.com Tour President Bill Calfee played Witch Hollow for the first time.

“I cannot believe what a great course you have here,” Calfee said. “Our players are going to love it. We ought to have one of our finals events here.”

First things first, Sanders says.

“Down the road, we’ll take a look at that,” he says. “But for now, we’ll focus on making our tournament great. The important thing is, PGA-brand golf is back. Everybody is super excited about a highly competitive, meaningful tournament being here. We’ve had some great exhibitions, but this will be with everything on the line. It’s awesome to have the opportunity to bring this product to Portland.”

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Twitter: @kerryeggers