PGA Tour event remains unlikely for Portland
Jeff Sanders has always been an underdog, tilting at windmills, slashing a machete through heavy jungles to achieve goals in life and his professional career.
At 5-9 and a buck-75, the Sunset High grad became an All-American golfer at Oregon and played five years on the PGA Tour.
Starting almost from scratch with a golf promotions business in 1989, Sanders' firm was purchased by Lagardere Sports and Entertainment in 2013. It has grown into a company with 25 full-time employees and now operates four tournaments on the PGA and Web.com tours, including Portland's WinCo Foods Portland Open, set for Aug. 8-11 at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club.
Sanders has been told he can't do something so often, he takes it as a challenge.
But the biggest challenge of all — landing a PGA Tour event for his hometown — is not likely to happen.
"I think about it every day, 24/7," says Sanders, 63, who lives in the Pearl District with his wife, Victoria. "And there is no reason why we shouldn't have a regular tour stop in Portland — none."
Except there are no openings on the PGA Tour calendar, and none in the foreseeable future.
The best possibility would be to stage an "opposite" event — a tournament held the same week as another PGA Tour event. There were only five of those on the PGA calendar for 2018-19 — opposite the four World Golf Championship events and the British Open.
"If you hold an 'opposite' against those events, you're not going to have the stars play your tournament," Sanders says. "If we're on the PGA Tour, we want to have the best players in the world play Portland. I want to see Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson and Brooks Koepka and Jordan Spieth playing at Pumpkin Ridge for Northwest fans to enjoy."
Sanders is in his sixth year operating the WinCo Foods Portland Open on the Web.com Tour, which features the "next-best 156 players in the world" after the regular PGA Tour. It's the final regular-season Web.com Tour event, and after the tourney, the top 25 players on the money list are presented their PGA Tour cards for the following year. Golfers who have played the WinCo Foods Portland Open have gone on to win 53 PGA Tour events.
"We have a meaningful tournament and the best young up-and-comers in the game," Sanders says. "I hope we can stage this event for many more years."
But in the back of Sanders' mind, he doesn't see why Portland can't get a regular PGA Tour stop, too.
Says Sanders: "The PGA Tour would love to have a tournament in the Northwest, but you must have the five pillars: a title sponsor, the venue, an operator, the market size and the date."
Portland has three — a venue (Pumpkin Ridge), an operator (Lagardere) and the market size (22nd in the U.S.).
Pumpkin Ridge is ready for a PGA Tour event — at least in hybrid fashion. Sanders envisions using the best 18 holes from the Witch Hollow (private) and Ghost Creek (public) courses to comprise a layout set at about 7,400 yards.
"It's a venue that can handle the big hitters," he says.
Sanders believes Pumpkin Ridge also would be a great layout for the PGA Championship, but that won't happen any time soon.
"They book those tournaments 10 years out," he says.
Once Sanders joined the France-headquartered Lagardere team, he began to put the pedal to the metal going after major events. He has rubbed shoulders with some of the biggest names in golf, including Johnny Miller, who serves as host of the Safeway Open, and Mickelson, who is ambassador for both the Safeway and Desert Classic PGA Tour events.
"It's been fun for our (staging and promotional) team to work at the highest level," Sanders says. "We always knew while running local and regional events and USGA and Web.com events that we could do it. But in golf lexicon, we didn't have a tee time until Lagardere came along and got us into the major leagues of the PGA Tour. I'm having lots of conversations (with PGA Tour officials) that we never used to have. The Tour is very happy with our two events."
Nearly 2.5 million people now live in the metro area. Sanders, a proponent of bringing major league baseball to the city, believes the area can sustain a much greater menu of spectator sports activity.
"When it's big league, this city supports it," he says. "We could draw from such a big footprint. We'd be the only PGA Tour event in the Northwest. We'd have fans coming in from Boise, Seattle, Eugene, Spokane."
It would require major sponsorship that could subsidize a purse of about $8 million.
There are companies in the area that could qualify as candidates for title sponsors. The shoe and apparel firms — Nike, Adidas, Under Armour and Columbia Sportswear — are at the top of the list. To some degree, they're all in the golf business.
Oregon's health-care industry — such as Moda, Providence and Cambia — is another possibility for sponsorship. Sanders would add secondary sponsors, but title sponsorship would be in the $5 million-plus neighborhood for an $8 million tournament.
Even a two- or three-day event such as the Fred Meyer Challenge — which enjoyed a successful run in Portland from 1986-2002 — would cost $8 million to $10 million to get the game's greatest stars to participate.
The biggest problem is finding an open date on the PGA Tour calendar, which for weather purposes in Portland would have to be from June through September. PGA Tour officials told Sanders this month there are simply no dates available. That's frustrating to Sanders, who believes Lagardere has proved itself capable to run a highly successful PGA Tour event with its work in Napa and La Quinta.
"We have the experience, the people and the capability to do a (PGA Tour) event in Portland," he says. "We're way more prepared than we would have been even a couple of years ago. I'd like to keep everything on the sports scene rock-and-rolling as Portland gets bigger. The city is positioned better today than we were 33 years ago when we put on the first Fred Meyer Challenge."
Sanders won't give up, even if odds are heavily stacked against him.
"I'll keep my ear to the ground," he says. "I want to have the first phone call if there's ever an opportunity. I'd just need one year in advance to get it done."