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FOAC Preview:
Challenges Ahead for Morgan and GR Jaycees

by Tom Cleary

As he staggered home victorious in last year's First of America Classic, Gil Morgan learned things don't always come easily at Grand Rapids' Senior Tour stop. This year, his hosts are discovering the same thing. After eight years First of America's title sponsorship ends in August, a casualty of the bank's merger with National City Bank of Ohio.

While the announcement of FOA's departure wasn't expected, many in West Michigan saw the writing on the wall when news of the new joint venture between the banks was announced in 1997. Said First of America's Tony Thompson, "We will continue to strongly support the Jaycees in their search for a title sponsor." Thompson says the bank will also "continue to support the tournament" in 1999. What was left unsaid, though, was that FOA would only do so in a minor -- and mostly symbolic -- manner.

"First of America has done a great service to the West Michigan community in sponsoring the Classic the last eight years," said Scott Greenlee of the Grand Rapids Jaycees Foundation, the licensee of the event. Now it's time for another local corporation to pick up the torch and ensure the future of West Michigan's premier sporting event."

Whether or not a single entity will take on that role, though, is the question. While international firms such as direct-sales juggernaut Amway and office furniture giant Steelcase would seem likely candidates to assume title sponsorship, neither is a lock to do so. Amway has spent large corporate marketing dollars on sports sponsorships in the past, but has concentrated on events and entities like the Olympics, the National Basketball Association and motorsports. Steelcase, whose business isn't consumer-driven, has mostly eschewed sports marketing in the past. But the company went from privately to publicly held earlier this year, and a youthful management team might now be more inclined to give sponsorship of the biggest event in its hometown a good look.

Which is exactly what the golf tournament is hoping to get this year from the top-heavy galaxy of Senior Tour stars. Clearly Morgan's win at Egypt Valley last year was huge for the tournament; it meant one of the top names on the Senior Tour would be back in 1998, and perhaps for many years to come as a former champion. West Michigan is arguably the smallest market to host a Senior Tour event, and hasn't always been able to attract the biggest names the sport has to offer. But with Dave Stockton and Morgan winning the last two events in Grand Rapids, tournament organizers felt they were slowly gaining a toehold as a Tour site offering appeal to the better players. While Jack Nicklaus has never appeared in Grand Rapids, tournament organizers felt they were slowly gaining a toehold as a Tour site offering appeal to the better players. While Jack Nicklaus has never appeared in Grand Rapids, other big draws such as Lee Trevino and Stockton have made regular appearances. The Jaycees are hoping to lure Hale Irwin next, but realize their future success and viability as a Tour stop will depend largely on how quickly they're able to land a well-heeled financial backer for 1999 and the years beyond.

Maybe they might want to approach Gil Morgan in that regard. He's been a veritable money machine since joining the Senior circuit, and last summer added $150,000 to his mountain of cash by outlasting Bob Duval by a shot. With Hale Irwin spending the week in New York at the PGA Championship, Morgan was the clear-cut favorite in Grand Rapids, but you might not have known it had you watched him play the final four holes of the 1997 event. Nursing a two-stroke lead, Morgan bogeyed the tough, par-four fifteenth after his playing companion, Duval drilled a long birdie putt. Then it was Duval who looked like the seasoned veteran. On the tricky par-three sixteenth, Duval speared an eight-iron which pitched five feet from the hole, but then drew back ten feet to the front edge of the putting surface. After that Morgan hit his ugliest shot of the tournament, a flying half-push which barely cleared the water hazard and left him off the right edge of the green, some twenty yards or so from the hole. But then he composed himself and nestled a pitch shot to within four feet and made par. Duval missed his birdie try and the pair remained tied for the lead.

On seventeen, it was Duval who had to scramble for par, while Morgan played the par-five in textbook style, dropping a fifteen-foot putt for birdie and a one-shot lead. But that didn't settle this issue. On the eighteenth, Morgan appeared to slip and hit a tee shot which seemed headed for big trouble on the hole's tree-lined left side. But his ball found a friendly branch which spit it back out to the edge of the fairway some 260 yards from the green. From there Morgan played like a champion, hitting a fairway wood to within forty yards of the hole, then pitching to within five feet for a par-saving putt. Duval failed to hit the green after a perfect tee shot, and after saving par himself settled for second place. Afterwards, Morgan grinned and offered an "Aw, shucks" explanation for his final hole stagger. "That was a bad break hitting that tree," he grinned. "My ball would've been a lot farther up the fairway if it hadn't." That was news to the fans, the media and Duval who also witnessed the shot. "He would've been deep in the woods if he hadn't hit the tree," lamented Duval. "It was going left of left."

So, the two top finishers in the 1997 FOAC departed West Michigan after providing different explanations as to what they considered to be "left." Depending on when or if someone comes to the table with a new title sponsorship offer, the Grand Rapids Jaycees may soon be offering their own definition of what's "left" for Grand Rapids' Senior Tour stop after 1998.

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