SBJ/July 17 - 23, 2006/This Weeks News

Event unhappy after LPGA Memorial Day shift

Bobby Ginn’s golf portfolio keeps expanding, though possibly at the expense of a longtime LPGA Tour event and not without prompting a controversy.

The real estate development firm of Bobby Ginn will sponsor a Memorial Day week event in Charleston, S.C., but the ShopRite LPGA Classic, which had the date, isn’t going away quietly.
Ginn’s Florida-based private real estate development and management firm, Ginn Clubs and Resorts, will sponsor the Ginn International, an LPGA Tour event scheduled for Memorial Day week in Charleston, S.C., which will take the position on the tour’s calendar that was occupied this season by the 21-year-old ShopRite LPGA Classic in Galloway Township, N.J. But the ShopRite tournament organizers aren’t happy and refuse to go away quietly.

LPGA Commissioner Carolyn Bivens declined to comment on the decision to insert the Ginn tournament into the Memorial Day slot. She said the LPGA had not entered into a contract with ShopRite operators for any future tournaments, and that the tour hopes to “negotiate a mutually acceptable agreement.”

But ShopRite organizers differ and are considering legal action. While tournament director Ruth Harrison said the event hasn’t had a formal contract with the LPGA since 2000, she points to a letter tournament organizers consider binding. The letter, dated June 29, 2005, and signed by Rob Neal, then the LPGA’s vice president of tournament business affairs, outlines the LPGA’s plan for the event to be played at the end of May through 2008. Robert Schmeck, general manager of host club Seaview Marriott Resort and Spa, said ShopRite officials requested the document in order for the resort to lock down the course and reserve other services during its booking window. Bivens, who had been named to replace Ty Votaw as LPGA commissioner but had not yet started, was among those to receive a copy of the letter.

But on June 12, the LPGA informed ShopRite organizers it wanted to move the event. That prompted a meeting last week in Philadelphia with tournament director Harrison, Mike Nichols, the tour’s vice president for business affairs, and Libba Galloway, the LPGA’s chief legal officer. Bivens, who participated in the meeting via conference call, offered alternative dates, including two spots in April, the weekend opposite the U.S. Open and the week of July 4.

Harrison said none of the proposed options were acceptable due to various reasons, among them holiday congestion along the Jersey Shore, early spring weather and a lack of television coverage.

She said that the tournament is set to take legal action if its date is taken away.

“It’s very ‘take it or leave it,’” Harrison said. “They offered us a lot of dates … (but) the weeks they have offered definitely would not work and would put this event into oblivion.”

A standoff with such a long-standing event would add to a lengthy list of controversy that’s surrounded Bivens’ tenure since she took over for Votaw last September, including the exit of several senior staff members and a dramatic increase in tournament fees. All of this has created a tense atmosphere between the LPGA brass and the Tournament Owners Association.

“It’s very careful right now, people are very cautious,” said association president Stephanie Hall. “The process of making decisions and understanding consequences and people’s reactions has not been weighed in the right way. A lot of these owners have been doing business for 15 or more years and a lot of them believe in the founding principles of golf — integrity, you call penalties on yourself. I think they expect that kind of mentality and attitude throughout the organization. So they’re being very careful. Everybody feels like they’re walking on eggshells.”

For now, the plan is for the Ginn International to be played at Ginn-owned RiverTowne Country Club with a $2.6 million purse and a winner’s share of $390,000 (both highs for a regular-season, full-field LPGA tournament).

It will be the third professional golf tournament sponsored by the company, joining the LPGA’s Ginn Clubs & Resorts Open, which is also bumping its purse to $2.6 million, and the Champions Tour’s Ginn Championship at Hammock Beach. A fourth event on a major pro circuit is likely, though Kent Atherton, president and COO of Ginn Sports Entertainment, a new division that manages the company’s sports ventures, would only say “another big announcement is planned.”

Atherton said Ginn is in talks with the Golf Channel about broadcasting the Ginn International’s early rounds. Weekend play will be televised on NBC from 4-6 p.m., with the French Open tennis tournament serving as a lead-in both days. The ShopRite received two hours of live coverage daily on ESPN2.

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