Jeff Sanders makes second annual golf tourney one big party
Jeff Sanders is all about golf, but he is very much about entertainment, too.
The promoter of the Web.com Tour’s WinCo Foods Open hopes everyone will enjoy the marriage of those two entities when the top 156 players on the secondary men’s pro golf tour tee it up Aug. 27-30 at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club.
Sanders — the former Sunset High and University of Oregon standout and longtime Portland resident — would resent the “secondary” label.
“There are 200 golfers on the PGA Tour and 175 on the Web.com Tour,” Sanders points out. “Compare that to the numbers in the pro sports leagues.”
Well, about 450 players comprise NBA rosters. There are about 1,800 in the NFL, 700 in the NHL and 750 in major league baseball.
A dozen of those who played the Web.com Tour a year ago are among the top 100 in the PGA Tour’s FedExCup rankings, and three — Daniel Berger, Justin Thomas and Tony Finau — have won PGA Tour events this year. In all, there have been 17 tournament victories on the PGA Tour by Web.com graduates this season. Among the PGA Tour regulars who played the Web.com Tour in the past are Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson, Zach Johnson, Ernie Els, Tom Lehman, Jim Furyk, Brandt Snedeker and Matt Kuchar.
“The Web.com Tour is almost a horizontal expansion of the PGA Tour these days,” Sanders says.
It’s younger than the PGA Tour, with up-and-comers who form a line hoping to be the PGA Tour stars of tomorrow.
The WinCo Foods Open made its debut last year at Pumpkin Ridge, with about 40,000 fans watching the four days of action and Carlos Ortiz — the leading 2014 Web.com Tour money-winner — shooting 14-under-par 274 to take home the top prize.
Bigger, better, more fun is what Sanders projects from the second staging of the tournament this year.
“Last year was the launch year; you’re just trying to get the thing up in the air,” says Sanders, executive vice president/events and sponsorships for Lagardere Unlimited, the French company that runs the event. “This year, we’ve had more time to focus on frosting the cake.”
Quality golf remains the crux, with 156 Web.com players vying for the golden carrot — a PGA Tour card that will be presented at tournament’s end to the tour’s top 25 money-winners for the year to that point.
The player who wins the $800,000 WinCo Foods Open will reap $144,000, “and even if he has zero earnings for the year, that will probably get him into the top 25 and a (PGA Tour) card, a lifetime dream for these guys,” Sanders says. “That’s what all these guys are shooting for. It’s super competitive.”
The WinCo Foods Open is all about charities, too, who sell the tickets and keep 100 percent of the proceeds. Last year, 120 Portland-area charities made about $750,000.
“We’ll give more money this year,” Sanders says. “We have 160 charities selling tickets. They’re about $125,000 ahead of where they were a year ago at this point. The biggest selling time is the month before the tournament, so we’re in a great spot.
“The most important thing to WinCo Foods was to give back to the community. That was their No. 1, 2 and 3 priority. I’m happy to say we’ll exceed $1 million this year. It’s just a matter of where we’ll finish above that mark.”
Sanders’ group — known as “Jeff Sanders Promotions” until signing on with Lagardere on Dec. 31, 2013 — has run the Web.com Tour’s Albertson’s Boise Open for 26 years, and just re-signed for four more years.
“This year, (Albertson’s) gave $1.5 million to charities,” Sanders says. “In our second year in Portland, we’ll be over $1 million. We’re off to a great start.”
The WinCo Foods Open has sold out all the 108 teams for the two-day pro-am event, has sold most of the available sponsorships and has sold 13 suites and skyboxes along the 18th hole.
When Sanders Promotions staged the 1996 U.S. Amateur and the ‘97 U.S. Women’s Open at Pumpkin Ridge, “we had other locations (for suites and skyboxes) on the course,” he says. “Next year, we’ll try to take the number from 13 up to 20 or so, and build it year by year.”
Then there is the entertainment package, highlighted by a hospitality area on the par-3 12th hole called The Grove. The PGA Tour’s Phoenix Open is famous for its “amphitheater” atmosphere at the 16th hole — one big party unto itself.
“We’re trying to go there,” Sanders says. “We’ll have a big open area selling 12 local craft brews. If you have a ticket, the first five tastings are complimentary, so essentially, your first pint is free. For 15 minutes after every birdie made on the hole, there will be half-price beers. There will be great food available to go with it, and players will walk by to sign autographs and high-five the fans.”
In addition, Mercedes-Benz of Wilsonville is running a promotion where if a pro makes a hole-in-one at No. 12, a fan will win a car.
“No limits, either,” Sanders says. “If we get a hole-in-one all four days, we’ll give away four cars.”
WinCo Foods will serve a free brunch to all ticket-holders on Sunday. Parking is free through the entire tournament. A free junior clinic, sponsored by Nike, will be staged on Thursday, conducted by the pros. All the kids will be given a “swag bag” from Nike. Former Eagles guitarist Don Felder will perform at the pro-am dinner Monday night and local groups will play music behind the 18th green at the conclusion of play on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.
“We’re trying to build a great event that’s more than a golf tournament,” Sanders says. “It’s great golf, but it’s also just a lot of fun.”
Sanders is in the second year of a three-year contract operating the WinCo Foods Open, which will be televised live all four days by The Golf Channel.
“We hope to add some more years to it,” he says. “We’re going to have to knock it out of the park this year, and, hopefully, everybody will be happy.”
Jeff Sanders Promotions founded in 1987, began staging tournaments with the 1990 Albertson’s Boise Open and has run 250 events over the years. The acquisition by Lagardere has allowed Sanders — who has 15 full-time employees along with 10 “roadies” — to focus on the golf side of the business. Lagardere — with an international base in Paris and major offices in New York, Los Angeles and Scottsdale, Ariz. — has a player management side that handles 50 players, including Phil Mickelson and Jordan Spieth.
“We’re the golf event division of the company,” Sanders says. The partnership “has gone fantastic. Everything these people have promised, they’ve delivered. They’ve supported us; they’ve let us do our jobs. I’m traveling a lot, looking at opportunities not just in golf, but for other sports.
“This gives me the opportunity to look at bigger things for the company — a more high-profile platform. These are things we’ve wanted to do, but we didn’t have the resources. Now we have the resources to do pretty much anything that makes good sense.”
Sanders’ group operates the two Web.com tournaments plus four two-day events — two in Scottsdale, one each in Jacksonville, Fla., and Boston — that he says generate “between $750,000 and $3 million in charity a year.”
Sanders says he is most thrilled to give his hometown an opportunity to watch “big-time golf” on his own home course — the former PGA Tour player has been a Pumpkin Ridge member since 1992. He predicts a score of 15-under will win on a Witch Hollow track set up at about 7,000 yards.
“Witch Hollow is tough when the greens are firm and fast,” Sanders says. “You have to hit the ball in the fairway to get the ball close to the hole. Last year, 13-under was leading after two rounds and 14-under won. The wind came up a little bit, the ball started to move around, the greens got firm and the course got tough.
“Whatever happens, there’s going to be a lot of drama unfold over the weekend. It’s a win-win for everybody.”