BY MIKE FIELDS
Yes, it rained on the parade that was the first regular PGA TOUR event in Kentucky in more than half a century, but the Barbasol Championship was nevertheless a successful big-time sports happening that should only grow and get better in coming years.
That’s the takeaway of tournament director Brooks Downing, whose bd Global company was the driving force behind bringing the $3.5 million Barbasol Championship to Champions at Keene Trace in Nicholasville two weeks ago.
“We controlled everything that we could control,” Downing said. “The one thing we couldn’t control was Mother Nature, which obviously played a major role in the tournament.
“Having said that, the reviews we got back from our patrons as well as our participants were all so positive. I think we hit the mark on what we were trying to establish, including the premium hospitality offering, the fan experience, and the level of golf that was played.
“I think our fans really enjoyed it, and they recognized that this was a PGA TOUR-caliber event, just like we told them it would be.”
More than 5 inches of rain swamped Champions at Keene Trace during the week and forced delay or suspension of play several times. All the bad weather, including a severe storm on Friday, had to affect attendance.
“Saturday and Sunday should be our two biggest days, and we were dodging lightning bolts,” Downing said. “If Saturday and Sunday are sunny and dry, and we’re able to have a normal schedule, how do things look?
“We still had over 25,000 people on our property for the week, but if the weather cooperates, does that become 40,000 or 50,000? I think it might.”
Despite all the rain, the course held up fairly well thanks to the extraordinary efforts of superintendent Carl Gray and his grounds crew.
Evan Mossbarger, who along with B Frye owns Champions at Keene Trace, said that while the wet weather “showed us some areas where we’ve got to improve the drainage,” he was encouraged to hear that the players found the greens to their liking.
“Despite all the rain, the greens maintained their integrity and they putted true, and the pros love it when that happens.”
Tom Heilbron, who founded Champions 30 years ago, thought the bad weather might ultimately prove to have been a good thing because it showed that Gray and his staff were up to the challenge.
“That should give the PGA TOUR confidence that they can handle just about anything that comes along down the road,” Heilbron said. “You don’t plan for 5 ½ inches of rain, but they dealt with it. So maybe all the trouble worked in their favor because they showed their inherent capabilities.”
Besides addressing drainage issues in some areas (including the driving range, which got pretty messy), Downing said the course will undergo a few changes. Those tweaks may include a new tee (or two), renovation of bunkers and enhancement of the lake’s edges.
Downing also said the sponsors’ and vendors’ “village”, which was on the front lawn of the clubhouse this year, didn’t get enough foot traffic. Next year it will be moved to the main walkway off the bus depot, where spectators enter the grounds.
The 2019 Barbasol Championship (July 20-23) will need more volunteers, too.
“We had 750 this year, and that proved to be a little light,” Downing said. “To get this right, and to provide all the services, we’ve got to get that number up to 1,000 at a minimum.”
Overall, Champions at Keene Trace looked like a PGA TOUR event in its debut.
“A common phrase we kept getting was, ‘I had no idea,’” Downing said. “People were just amazed by what we were able to put on.”
Mossbarger was among those impressed.
“It really blew me away,” he said. “And our membership can’t stop talking about how much fun they had and what a great experience it was for them.”
Heilbron thought Champions at Keene Trace presented itself well on the Golf Channel, too.
“It looked really, really good,” he said. “I started watching other tournaments with a critical eye to see how they looked compared to how we looked on TV, and we stacked up pretty doggone well. We have a lot of contour, a lot of movement hole to hole. It’s not boring. I thought it showed extremely well.”
Even though it was the same week as the British Open (and Tiger Woods’ resurgence), the Barbasol Championship didn’t lack for interesting storylines.
Giving Brittany Lincicome a sponsor’s exemption was a genius stroke. The first woman to compete on the PGA TOUR in 10 years, Lincicome created a national buzz and she drew some of the biggest galleries of the week.
Hometown favorite Josh Teater’s strong play drew the biggest roars. Recent UK graduates Chip McDaniel and Cooper Musselman boosted local interest by making the cut.
And the close, final-round battle among Troy Merritt, Billy Horschel, Tom Lovelady and Richy Werenski made for a dramatic Monday.
Merritt, who matched the course record with an opening 62, finished 23-under, one ahead of his challengers. The bearded 32-year-old was a popular winner. He was obviously thrilled, and couldn’t have been more gracious in victory.
The nines at Champions at Keene Trace were flipped for the tournament, which meant the Barbasol Championship’s 18th hole was a par-3 over water.
“I think people loved it,” Downing said. “We’re only the second tour event with a par-3 finishing hole. (The Greenbrier is the other). I’m surprised more don’t have it because it really ends things with a bang.”
Heilbron was delighted with how the Barbasol Championship played out on the course he opened in 1988.
“I always hoped to have a blimp overhead of a major tournament here,” he said. “This had everything but the blimp, and more. What made me proudest was how professionally it was done. It was first-class all the way.”
Mossbarger hopes this year’s tournament whetted the appetite of area golf fans.
“I think there were a lot of people sitting on the sidelines this year saying, ‘Let’s see what this thing looks like.’ I hope the community really responds with faith next year.”
On a scale of 1-to-10, Downing rated the inaugural tournament an 8.
“Operationally, I thought we hit the mark. From a fan experience, we were pretty close,” he said. “All things considered, I thought it was a tremendous success. But we know it can be even bigger and better in the future.”