Kentuckiana: A Home For Golf

FLR.06.14.14.217Golf is one of the most exciting sports on planet earth. When two players are fighting it out on championship Sunday, the drama and tension can be palpable, with spectators knowing that everything can all come down to one final excruciatingly exciting putt on the 18th hole.

Well, from May 19-24, elite golf is returning once more to Kentuckiana. The Senior PGA Championship will be held at the Pete Dye Course in French Lick, Indiana. For championship director Bryan Karns, the championship promises to be one of the most exciting yet, as 2014 champion Colin Montgomerie returns to defend his title in French Lick. And just like Montgomerie, many of the stars playing this year are golfers who have already spent decades tasting glory, living the highs and lows of the tour and having the development of their career watched by millions around the world. And those same millions now get to see the stars they grew up watching close up in French Lick.

The 2014 Senior PGA Champion, Colin Montgomerie of Scotland, poses with the Alfred S. Bourne Trophy during the Award Ceremony for the 75th Senior PGA Championship presented by KitchenAid held at Harbor Shores Golf Club on May 25, 2014 in Benton Harbor, Michigan.

The 2014 Senior PGA Champion, Colin Montgomerie of Scotland, poses with the Alfred S. Bourne Trophy during the Award Ceremony for the 75th Senior PGA Championship presented by KitchenAid held at Harbor Shores Golf Club on May 25, 2014 in Benton Harbor, Michigan.

“When you come to our event, you recognize almost all of the names on the leaderboard. And certainly our demographic know a lot of the players that come out,” Karns says. “They are in that age group where they’re starting to see guys that they grew up watching.

“I think it’s just a different mindset when they’re (the players) at that point in their career,” he continues. “Monty’s (Montgomerie) a great example of a guy like that. Certainly for American golf fans over the years, there was sort of a contentious relationship there.”

But that’s changed.

“He was in French Lick three weeks ago, and he was just so gracious and had such a great attitude,” Karns says. “I think it was the attitude you wouldn’t expect coming from Montgomerie. And seeing him win last year in Benton Harbor with the same kind of attitude, he just kind of seems to be having a lot more fun. And that’s reflecting, I think, in his interactions with the fans and the media.”

As Karns sees it, the reason for such a relaxed attitude might be the fact that the players – now at the tail ends of their careers – can just compete for competition’s sake, rather than fight for money. There’s more purity to the game.

FLR.06.14.14.179“You definitely see a lot of them (the players) spend a lot more time with their families,” adds Karns. “A lot of their spouses and kids will come with them.”

Take Jay Haas, for example.

“Jay Haas, last year, had his spouse and kids come in,” Karns says. “It’s one of those situations where these kids are now to the age where they see how good dad is.”

You don’t get moments like that at the Masters.

“I mean, everybody saw Tiger at the Masters at the par- three competition,” Karns says. “His kids are really young, and they may have some pictures and vivid memories of it. But these kids are 20, 30 years old, and they can actually walk with their dad. They can see the fact that he is one of the top golfers over the last 30 years. They actually start getting it, experiencing all the stories that he’s talked about, so it really opens them up to that. It’s more of a family environment.”

Not that the experience dampens the competitive instincts in any way.

“They’re very focused in winning,” says Karns. “But it’s now more open up to, ‘I want to enjoy the experience, and I hope I win.’”

One thing that’s endured over the last few years in regard to the Senior PGA Championship is the partnership with KitchenAid. That’s something that has led to much more fan engagement, according to Drew Spuller, marketing and promotions specialist at the Senior PGA Championship.

KitchenAid is running a social media campaign around Louisville, inviting residents to take selfies with a food mixer based near Louisville’s most memorable landmarks. That opportunity is still available. 

Karns and Spuller want to highlight to golf fans that the chance to watch legends play up-close at French Lick comes at a very low and accessible price, with tickets still widely available for both the tournament and practice round, at www.srpga.com.

FLR.06.14.14.140“That’s another great thing about a senior event – the affordability,” adds Karns. “So you get tickets that start as low as $15 for the Wednesday practice round. Kids 17 and under get in free; military personnel and their immediate family get in free. So I think when you’re looking at Memorial Day weekend, you can take the family out for $30 or less.

“I think that’s a huge selling point for us in addition to everything else we’ve talked about,” Karns adds. He’s also quick to add that there are some corporate packages available as well for the event, in case local business are interested.

“There are also some packages through the hotel, that you can buy tickets to the hospitality and then also stay at the hotel – so kind of a neat, all-in-one sort of stay-and-play package.”

For guys like Karns and Spuller, the Senior PGA has been a journey. Like many PGA staff, they are assigned locations at which to organize a championship over a couple of years before moving onto the next site, eventually graduating to dream events such as the PGA Championship or Ryder Cup. The constant change of locations can prove both exciting and taxing.

“It’s a different mindset, I think, and it’s hard at times,” explains Karns. “I mean, I don’t have any kids, but I’m married, and so it’s taxing on your spouse to do that.

“And some communities are easier to acclimate to than others,” he adds. “We lived in Chicago for two years, and that was great. We had some friends up there, and just the culture – so many more people there. When you go to a town and community of 2,500 like French Lick, and it’s harder to meet people, it’s harder to kind of settle in and feel like you’re really building a life there…

“But I think it’s also exciting,” he goes on. “But then when the event’s over, you get a new place to go and experience. Living in French Lick for a year and a half, you really get acclimated and sort of  ingrained in the culture. You pretty much know everybody; they know who you are. So it’s different in a big market, when they don’t know who you are.”

Indeed, French Like is much different even from Louisville.

“When you come to Louisville, you have the Derby and you have Louisville basketball and football and everything that comes along with what the city does. And so a PGA championship certainly is big, but it’s not, ‘Oh my gosh, this is the end-all, be-all.’ Whereas, I think in that community [French Lick], that’s the biggest event they’ll probably ever have, from a spectator’s standpoint – and they’ve done some other big things there. They’re hosting the Porsche convention this summer, and they are doing some really great things at French Lick Resort, but I think in terms of bringing 35-40,000 people over the course of six days on a property, they’ve never done anything like that.” VT

Photos courtesy of PGA of America.