Mac Engel

Tough lie: Will Fort Worth lose its famed Colonial golf tournament?

Colonial Country Club members have been making funeral arrangements for their long-standing PGA event after an email last week warned of title sponsor Dean & DeLuca dropping its sponsorship,

Death (or at least panic) talk has permeated the club, including the board, which handles the logistics and so much of the event’s obscure details.

The biggest fear is that without a title sponsor, Fort Worth’s annual PGA stop will die.

“That’s panic talk. We are a long way from that point,” Colonial Country Club president Rob Doby said this week in a phone interview. “We are in a serious situation and we are taking this very seriously.

“There is a binding, force-able contract in place for 2018. Dean & DeLuca is not in default at this point.”

According to multiple sources, the PGA gave Colonial a hard deadline of Nov. 1 to come up with the $11.5 million necessary to make the 2018 event happen. But the club said it wouldn’t have the money by then.

The tour has since backed off that deadline. Now the two and the city of Fort Worth are pooling their resources and leaning on their contacts to find a solution. That’s exactly where the club does not want to be: Hat in hand, knocking on doors.

The PGA declined comment.

Early indications are that the name of the event, scheduled for May 21-27, 2018, will return to The Colonial. The concern is for 2019 and beyond. No one is certain about that.

So, cough-cough, Ed Bass: What’s in your wallet?

The most likely scenario is that a handful of companies, including Dean & DeLuca, contribute as “presenting sponsors” to cover expenses. That includes the purse, which in 2017 was $6.9 million.

Envision this T-shirt: “2018 Colonial” is emblazoned across the front while the back reads, “2018 Colonial, Presented by ...” with about six sponsors listed.

But this would be a one-year band-aid to buy time for the PGA and Colonial to find a single title sponsor, which, given the uncertainties of the future, is doable, and difficult.

Fort Worth-based American Airlines was asked about taking over as the title sponsor. The answer was no.

According to sources, however, AA CEO Doug Parker indicated to club officials the company will help in some capacity. Translation: American will give Colonial some money in 2018 to make this work. They’re just not going to cover the whole thing.

Other potential local assistance could come from BNSF Railway.

“We are very supportive of this community and the programs of Fort Worth,” said BNSF spokesman Joe Foust. “We are open to the proposal and we will evaluate it and make our decision from there.”

There are likely no Tarrant County-based banks with the marketing budgets big enough to be viable contributors.

Fort Worth city leaders are scheduled to meet with the chamber of commerce and business leaders in an effort to find commitments to make sure the 2018 PGA date is secure.

“I do feel confident Fort Worth will come together, as always, to make this happen,” said Fort Worth mayor Betsy Price, who has been active in the recruiting efforts to land sponsors for Colonial. “This isn’t chump change by any means. But we are not going to let [Colonial] just go away. It means too much to the city. When I travel internationally, the two things I get asked about the most is The Cliburn and The Colonial.”

Dean & DeLuca representatives have met with PGA officials to potentially re-negotiate its relationship with the tour, according to Colonial sources. (Note to readers: Columnist Mac Engel is one of Colonial’s roughly 1,500 members).

The upscale grocery chain is two years into a six-year commitment that requires the company to spend about $11.5 million per year on the PGA event. To entice D&D, Colonial agreed to change the name of the event from “The Colonial” to the “Dean & DeLuca Invitational at Colonial.”

Almost unbelievably, the contract between the PGA and D&D includes “soft” language that includes no penalty or buyout of note should the title sponsor end the relationship prematurely.

Dean & DeLuca’s parent company, Thai property developer Pace Development Corp., has $452 million in debt coming due over the next year, according to Bloomberg.

Then there is the matter of 2019, when the PGA will go to its new schedule, which includes holding the PGA Championship in May for the first time. The PGA wants to compress its calendar to avoid conflicts with football season.

In order to do so, a tournament or two, or three, could be dropped from the PGA schedule.

Would the PGA end its relationship with Hogan’s Alley? Some of the game’s greats (Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Phil Mickelson, Arnold Palmer, Sam Snead, Ben Crenshaw, Lee Trevino and Tom Watson) have won at Colonial.

Tradition and names of years gone by don’t sell the sport. Participation in the game, according to Golf World, continues to drop or be flat. TV ratings for every sport are stagnant, at best. Selling golf is hard. For any tournament.

The 2017 Master’s, which included a dramatic and suspenseful final Sunday led by household name and eventual Green Jacket winner Sergio Garcia, had its worst TV ratings in 13 years.

In September 2011, the PGA signed a nine-year contract extension with CBS and NBC. That was just as Tiger Woods, the sport’s biggest star, began his descent.

The PGA passed on the chance to opt out of its deal this year, and will retain the deal through 2021. That includes Colonial.

All of this adds up to create a smorgasbord of uncertainty for potential sponsors.

The Dean & DeLuca Invitational is all but dead, but The Colonial is not. The club, PGA and Fort Worth have 12 to 14 months to find a sponsor rather than make funeral arrangements.

Mac Engel: @macengelprof

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