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Nationwide Tour Has Long Utah History
BY KURT KRAGTHORPE
The Salt Lake Tribune
Published: July 24, 2011 11:20PMUpdated: July 24, 2011 11:24PM
Zach Johnson won the Envirocare Utah Classic Sunday at Willow Creek Country Club. Above, Johnson hits onto the 17th green, 2 strokes under his main competitor, Bobby Gage. photo by Leah Hogsten, The Salt Lake Tribune. 9/7/03 4:12:24 PM
Evan Byers is convinced the biggest shot in the history of Utah’s Nationwide Tour golf event came nearly four years after Zach Johnson drove out of the Willow Creek Country Club parking lot.
The day Johnson won the Masters in 2007, Byers believes club members, sponsors and fans received validation for maintaining Utah’s relationship with the PGA Tour.
So as the Utah Championship tees off this week for the 20th time in the state — between Riverside Country Club in Provo and Willow Creek in Sandy — the event has a dual legacy: It has hosted many golfers who would become famous and it has kept going, amid financial challenges.
“It wasn’t easy, but we were able to survive — and it’s still there,” said Byers, who rescued the tournament and directed it for eight years.
This year’s list of PGA winners suggests the Nationwide Tour’s competition is far beyond Triple-A baseball, a natural comparison. Jhonattan Vegas, Keegan Bradley, Brendan Steele and Gary Woodland have won on the big tour after playing in Sandy last September with mixed results. Past alumni, including Bubba Watson and Nick Watney, have emerged as stars.
“As you can tell by the success those guys are having, the level of golf is incredible,” said tournament director Mike Smith.
That became evident from the start. Only 11 months after winning the inaugural Ben Hogan Utah Classic in Provo in 1990, John Daly won the PGA Championship. Other major champions who appeared in Utah include Stewart Cink, David Duval, Ernie Els, Jim Furyk, Lucas Glover and Shaun Micheel.
Over these 22 years, the tournament has skipped two years, moved from Riverside to Willow Creek, endured management problems and managed to keep operating on a tour whose umbrella sponsor has moved from Hogan to Nike to Buy.com to Nationwide.
While the tour considers the Utah Championship a separate event, dating to 1999, Utah is only one of five states from the 1990 schedule that still have tour stops — joining Tennessee, Kansas, Missouri and Idaho.
As with all pro golf events, sponsorship is a continual issue. The tournament left the calendar in 1997 after the Utah Section PGA could no longer justify staging it without being able to support the charity, Special Olympics Utah. But “I have no bad memories of it,” said Jeff Beaudry, then the section’s executive director. “To be part of that on the ground floor was really, really special to me.”
The Ganter USA brewery relaunched the event in 1999 at Willow Creek but immediately left a trail of unpaid bills and lawsuits that threatened to end the event after a one-year rebirth. The tour subsidized the 2000 tournament and asked Byers to take over.
Willow Creek “has been tremendous,” said Nationwide Tour President Bill Calfee. “It was very tough. The [club’s] board was very supportive. I think we made the right decision, and I’m glad we did it.”
The Utah Sports Commission became the host organization in 2005 and now is the presenting sponsor.
Jeff Robbins, the commission’s CEO, said keeping a PGA Tour-brand franchise is important to the state, since the demise of a Champions Tour event that was staged in Park City from 1982-2002.
“We want to keep it here as long as we can,” Robbins said.
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Brushes with greatness
The 2004 tournament at Willow Creek Country produced the best leaderboard in Utah Championship history, as judged by what those players have gone on to do. Brett Wetterich won the event and played in the Ryder Cup two years later. Bubba Watson, D.A. Points and Nick Watney, who have combined for five PGA Tour victories this season, each finished in the top 12.
He hit it where?
Willow Creek’s No. 3 hole (No. 12 for members), plays 547 yards from the back tee. By taking a shortcut over the tall pine trees on the right side with a slight northwest wind blowing, Bubba Watson once left himself only 127 yards for his second shot. “We ought to put a plaque there,” said Willow Creek pro Eric Nielsen.
Long John’s legend
When he won the inaugural Utah tournament in 1990, John Daly was said to “look like a coming star,” according to The Tribune’s final-round coverage, which failed to mention his long-hitting ability. Daly did make an impression on Riverside pro Robert McArthur, who remembers him hitting a 4-iron over the driving range net.
When the Utah Section PGA began operating the tournament in 1990, Special Olympics Utah became the event’s charity. Stemming from a clinic conducted by the pros, golf eventually became an official Special Olympics sport internationally. The athletes also volunteered to work on the course. Ted Tryba, the ‘91 winner, said witnessing the dedication of the athlete carrying the hand-held scoreboard in his group kept him from dwelling on a bad shot.
Steve Schneiter, who grew up in Sandy and now lives in Saratoga Springs, has played in 17 of the Nationwide Tour’s 19 events in Provo or Sandy, both as a tour member and a Utah Section PGA qualifier. Schneiter’s best finish is a tie for 15th place in 1999. In 2004, he was the first-round co-leader with 65 and tied for 18th.
Craig Kanada, who won the 2006 tournament, has played 12 times in Utah between 1991 and 2010. Kanada has played in only one tournament this year.
Ganter USA’s one year as the tournament sponsor became a “fiasco,” as Nationwide Tour President Bill Calfee described it, with unpaid bills and lawsuits. But the South Jordan-based brewery created a one-time phenomenon, drawing an estimated 20,000 fans to Willow Creek on Labor Day 1999 as Fred Couples, David Duval, Craig Stadler and John Cook to Willow Creek played against four tour members. Matt Gogel won the $40,000 first prize with a 7-under-par 65; Couples shot a 68.
Milan Swilor delivered one of the best performances in tour history by a local club pro. Swilor led the 1995 tournament late in the second of three rounds, but bogeyed the last two holes and settled for a 67 at Riverside Country Club. He finished sixth. Another Utahn, Spence Ahrend, tied for seventh.
Glen Hnatiuk won a three-way playoff for the ‘95 title on the first extra hole, even after having to replay a “perfect” shot on No. 18 at Riverside. His 8-iron shot struck a utility wire stretching across the fairway, requiring the second attempt.
During the ‘96 tournament, in which he tied for 33rd place, Ahmad Dan Bateman broke a record for any PGA Tour-operated event by playing an eight-hole stretch in 9 under par — seven birdies and an eagle. He posted a 5-under 67.
Michael Christie won the tour’s final stop in Provo in 1996 by four strokes, shooting 20 under par for 54 holes (66-63-67). Christie later committed suicide. Tommy Moore, involved in a four-way playoff in ‘93, died two years later from complications of a rare blood disease.
Four golfers who played in the 2010 Utah Championship have won PGA Tour titles this season:
Player PGA victory Utah result
Jhonattan Vegas Bob Hope Classic Tied for 2nd
Keegan Bradley HP Byron Nelson T41
Brendan Steele Valero Texas Open Missed cut
Gary Woodland Transitions Championship MC
Other 2011 PGA Tour winners who have played in Utah:
Player PGA victory Best Utah finish
Jonathan Byrd Tournament of Champions T51, ‘01
Mark Wilson Sony Open/Phoenix Open MC, ‘02
Bubba Watson Farmers Insurance/Zurich T4, ‘05
D.A. Points AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am T7, ‘04
Aaron Baddeley Northern Trust Open T11, ‘02
Nick Watney WGC-Cadillac/AT&T National T12, ‘04
Martin Laird Arnold Palmer Invitational T48, ‘05
Brandt Snedeker The Heritage MC, ‘05
Lucas Glover Wells Fargo Championship MC, ‘03
David Toms Crowne Plaza Invitational T31, ‘90
© 2011 The Salt Lake Tribune