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Betting the Farm on the PGA Tour

The Century Club continues to attract golf superstars without pricey appearance fees


The hosts of San Diego's annual PGA Tour event were in full panic mode this time a year ago. With less than a fortnight before the opening round at Torrey Pines Golf Course, they had all but abandoned hope of lining up a title sponsor to replace Buick — which had backed out of the final year of its contract because of the financial travails of its corporate parent, General Motors. The Century Club of San Diego, the local nonprofit that administers the four-day professional tournament, faced the ignominy of holding the event without a corporate underwriter and had gone so far as to print signs for a sponsorless San Diego Open.

Meanwhile, the PGA Tour faced the unwelcome prospect of dipping into its own coffers to help The Century Club make good on the $5 million purse promised to Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els and the 142 other competing golfers.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Farmers Insurance stepped in and signed a one-year contract to replace Buick.

“They weren’t even on our radar,” says Tom Wilson, The Century Club’s executive director. “We hadn’t even talked to them.” But Farmers was the right corporate partner to come in at the 11th hour. “That’s the business they’re in,” explains Wilson. “They were able to react in a very short time.”

The 2010 Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines proved such a success that execs at the Los Angeles–based company decided to sponsor the tourney for the next four years.

“We clearly see this partnership as an extension of our ongoing commitment to Southern California, the greater San Diego area and all the communities across the United States in which we serve our customers,” said Farmers CEO F. Robert Woudstra in a joint announcement last spring with The Century Club and the PGA Tour.

In taking on sponsorship of San Diego’s PGA Tour stop, Farmers has reaped plenty of bang for its buck in terms of brand promotion. Wilson notes that the tournament at city-owned Torrey Pines has led the PGA Tour in television ratings (for non-major championships) 15 of the past 20 years. That’s attributable in part to the venue, Torrey’s 36 telegenic golf holes abutting the Pacific Ocean. It also is attributable to San Diego’s success in attracting the brightest stars in golf to its annual tournament.

Hometown hero Phil Mickelson has won three times at Torrey, including his very first victory as a PGA Tour professional. Tiger Woods has won seven times at Torrey, with six of those victories coming in the annual PGA Tour event, the other in the epic 2008 U.S. Open (which was hosted by the United States Golf Association).

With the changing landscape of professional golf and so many ginormous golf events — including the four major championships, the World Golf Championships and the FedEx Cup Playoffs — the Farmers Insurance Open is fortunate to be perceived as one of the “regular” PGA Tour’s top tournaments. Other once-prominent West Coast tour stops haven’t fared as well in recently years. The Bob Hope Desert Classic and the Los Angeles Open no longer boast the strong fields they once attracted and would kill to have marquee talents like Phil and Tiger show up at their tournaments even half as often as they show up at Torrey.

That’s not to say that the Farmers Insurance Open does not face challenges of its own. The European Tour has become increasingly competitive with the PGA Tour. While San Diego’s tour stop enjoys certain star power, it is increasingly rivaled by tourneys on the other side of the world. For the past several years, the Open at Torrey Pines has gone head-to-head with January’s Dubai Desert Classic, one of the top events on the European Tour — which pays appearance money to top golfing stars.

This year, San Diego’s event has been moved on the PGA Tour calendar to January 24-30. But while it no longer competes with Dubai, it now must contend with the Qatar Masters, another high-profile event (which also pays appearance money). Last year, three of the four major championship winners competed in Qatar: U.S. Open champ Louis Oosthuizen, British Open winner Graeme McDowell and PGA champion Martin Kaymer. Only San Diego native Mickelson, the 2010 Masters winner, teed it up at Torrey. Moreover, the balance of power in international golf appears to have shifted to Europe as England’s Lee Westwood has supplanted Woods, and six of the world’s top 10 golfers are loyal members of the European Tour.

The Century Club’s Wilson is not worried. The Farmers Insurance Open will continue to attract a strong field of golfers, he says, because San Diego is a popular destination city, Torrey Pines is a challenging golfing venue, and its list of past champions includes some of the greatest ever to play the game.

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