Golf

WICHITA OPEN'S SUCCESS TESTAMENT TO COMMUNITY

The Preferred Health Systems Wichita Open has a Facebook page.

Big deal, you say. Who doesn't these days? Besides, if you're 20 and don't have one, well, you're only missing those pictures somebody posted of you having a good time.

But back to the point. The fact that the Wichita Open has joined the social networking revolution on sites like Twitter, MySpace and Digg is one of the latest testaments to its staying power in the community.

When the Wichita Open begins Thursday at Crestview Country Club, it will be one of four tournaments on the 2009 Nationwide Tour celebrating its 20th anniversary. The others are the Knoxville Open, which was played in June, the upcoming Price Cutter Charity Championship in Springfield, Mo., and the Albertsons Boise Open.

Former PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman conceived the idea for a developmental golf tour in 1990. Wichita was one of 30 original stops with the Reflection Ridge Open.

"Nobody knew if it was going to make it," said Tom Lehman, who won the first tournament in Wichita and is serving as honorary chairman for this year's Wichita Open. "That first year proved that it was a legitimate tour."

Longevity hasn't come easy, though. According to the Nationwide Tour, 66 tournaments have come and gone for various reasons since the tour's inception.

The tour itself has morphed with umbrella sponsorships, changing from the Hogan to the Nike Tour in 1993, then to the Buy.com Tour in 2000 and finally the Nationwide Tour in 2003. Nationwide is currently in the second year of a five-year extension that lasts through 2012.

In Wichita, the tournament has been played at three courses. It moved from Reflection Ridge to Willowbend Golf Club in 1997, then to its current home on Crestview's North course in 2001.

The tournament has also had six official names during that time.

"I think all sports have got one thing in common," said Roy Turner, the Wichita Open tournament director since 1999. "You just can't sit still. Every year we've got to change.

"You think you've got it down and you don't.... The people who get lost in this are the people who don't change."

Turner wasn't referring to the title sponsorship provided by Preferred Health Systems the last seven years. Or the recent four-year extension that will keep the Wichita Open at Crestview through at least 2012. Instead, he was talking about the bits and pieces that go into the whole tournament experience.

Ideally, Turner would like the Wichita Open to sell itself on the merits of its golf. After all, past champions like Lehman, David Duval and David Toms have gone on to stardom on the PGA Tour. Others, like current U.S. Open champion Lucas Glover, past Masters winner Zach Johnson and three-time Ryder Cup player Chad Campbell, didn't win at Crestview, but they played there.

Turner doesn't view the Nationwide as a second-tier tour, but an extension of the PGA Tour.

"The two sports I've represented in this town — at the time of the Wings' (indoor soccer team) peak, they were the best professional soccer players in America," Turner said. "At this event, they are the best professional golfers in America.

"Where else in Wichita can we draw the best professional athletes from any other sports to this town? It's a hard sell, though, because a lot of people don't know them."

It hasn't stopped Turner from trying to include golf novices in the event. In past years, he has brought in inflatable playground equipment during the tournament, established a concert night — this year, the Neville Brothers performed Saturday — and made tickets available through promotions with area QuikTrip convenience stores.

For golf junkies, there are two large pro-am tournaments that give people a chance to connect with the pros and grandstand areas around the 17th and 18th greens that create a good weekend atmosphere.

"The one thing I feel very strongly about is that Wichita or any community needs these types of events for the quality of life, the economic impact — all of the above," Turner said.

Turner worked with Wichita State sports management students this spring to establish the Wichita Open's presence on the Internet. The tournament already had a Web site, but now it has multiple outlets Turner uses to blog about Wichita Open news and provide updates on past and present Nationwide golfers.

The Wichita Open had 234 Facebook friends at the start of July. Turner hopes there's a lot more at Crestview come tournament time. Maybe even for the next 20 years.

  Comments