Golf

Wichita Open has history of thrilling finishes

Brad Elder is quick to caution against labeling him the expert on the Sunday atmosphere at the Wichita Open.

Never mind that the 35-year-old tour veteran is the only person on the planet to win the tournament twice. Or that he was one shot away from a playoff that could have yielded a third title.

"When you're winning and leading, you kind of block those things out," Elder said.

But tunnel vision only goes so far when you arrive at a hole where a birdie on your scorecard puts free hamburger coupons in fans' pockets. Or when your stroll to the 18th green is accompanied by a guy with a bullhorn introducing you to the crowd.

These are just a couple of the elements that highlight the final round of a Wichita Open at Crestview Country Club.

By their very nature, sporting events tend to generate excitement as they approach their conclusions. While some may debate golf's ability to move the needle like a Game 7 of a championship series or a football title game, the Wichita Open has historical data that should at least pique thrill-seekers' interests: 16 of the tournament's 20 champions won by either one shot or in a playoff.

"By Sunday, everybody's going and they're very interested in the golf because they're looking at the leaderboards, seeing the changes and they know what to expect in the areas of the course they're watching," tournament director Roy Turner said.

True, although galleries will be just as plugged in next Sunday — the final day of this year's Wichita Open — at two PGA Tour events and a stop on the Champions Tour.

What sets a Crestview crowd apart is the ability to experience professional golf with some homespun touches. The Wichita Open's weekend rounds are broadcast on local radio, giving attendees the opportunity to slip on a pair of headphones and stay up to date with what can be a challenging spectator sport. A crew of roving reporters follows the final groups, offering hole-by-hole updates via cell phones throughout the round.

Another sign it's Sunday at the Wichita Open is the swelling gallery for the final group. The tournament's late July and early August finishes over the years have ensured the word "hydration" is part of a Wichita Open fan's vocabulary. But even with the leaders typically teeing off in the midday heat, fans move along the gallery ropes in numbers not seen earlier in the week.

"Around the course you get a lot of people saying, 'Look at that' or 'He just did that' if somebody makes a birdie or has a bad hole," Turner said. "You just don't see that on Thursday."

Crestview's North course is also configured for low-scoring fireworks. Since 2003, Nationwide Tour golfers have played it as a par-71 layout. But even though Crestview's back nine is par 36, seven tour pros have carded 29s on that stretch since 2004.

Advantageous scoring holes on the back nine include the 339-yard 11th, a par 4 that tempts long hitters to steer through a narrow, tree-lined fairway toward the green. Both par 5s, the 501-yard 14th and 520-yard 18th, are reachable in two shots for many pros, yielding prospects for birdies and even eagles that cause a stir for scoreboard watchers.

"Whenever you finish with a par 5, you've got more things that can happen," Elder said. "If you've got a chance to sneak into a playoff, it's a situation where you can hit two or three great shots and get it done. It can backfire on you just as fast, too."

In last year's Wichita Open, Chris Tidland reached the 18th in two, then buried a 20-foot eagle putt that eventually gave him a one-shot victory.

As memorable as No. 18 can be, many tour pros get their kicks at the 202-yard 17th. The last few years, Walt's Sports Bar & Grill owner Larry Doss has offered a promotional deal of free hamburgers to spectators in the corporate boxes whenever a golfer makes a birdie.

This year, Turner is adding a public concession viewing area near the 17th green that will likely take the festive atmosphere up a notch.

"It's just been great since they've added those kinds of things around there," Elder said. "It brings more fans out and it gets them more involved."

With Crestview set to host its 10th Wichita Open, the Sunday vibe that has accompanied golfers like Elder and Tidland to titles is well established. It's a part of the city's sports landscape that Turner is eager to share with all comers.

"It's an adrenaline high that, without it, I'd probably call in sick," Turner said. "I see the excitement in my staff and in the volunteers and in the people who come to watch.

"Sunday is the day that makes everything worthwhile."

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