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Purse and TV Coverage
Head Changes to G.R.'s Senior Tournament

By Dean Holzwarth

For the past 14 years, the Senior PGA Tour has made its annual stop in Grand Rapids. The event has had its share of memorable moments over the years, but a few changes this year have expectations on the rise. The tournament, which will be held July 2-8 at Egypt Valley Country Club in Ada, endured a complete makeover in the past six months, including a new name change, a national television contract and a bigger purse. The Foremost Insurance Championship has now become the Farmers Charity Classic, as the Farmers Insurance Group assumes title sponsorship through 2004. Farmers, a Los Angeles-based company, acquired Caledonia-based Foremost Insurance, the title sponsor of the tournament in 1999 and 2000, last March.

Farmers will also sponsor the first appearance of the Grand Rapids event on national television. CNBC and PAX will broadcast the 2001 tournament to a potential audience of 76 million U.S. homes and as well as an overseas audience. PAX will broadcast the first round on Friday with CNBC taking over coverage for the second and final round on Saturday and Sunday. CNBC and PAX will air 34 Senior PGA events via a four-year contract signed last year, replacing an earlier agreement between the Senior Tour and ESPN.

If that's not enough, Farmers also increased the purse $300,000 to $1.4 million for the 2001 event. In addition, the purse will go up $100,000 each of the remaining three years on the contract reaching $1.7 million for the 2004 tournament.

Mike Nichols, executive director of the tournament, hopes the changes will help the Grand Rapids event become one of the premier events on the Senior PGA circuit. "We've had an increased interest in sponsorship due in large part to the fact that we have the national television commitment for the first time and I think that really elevates the stature of the event as the final piece of the puzzle that we never had before," Nichols said. "The bigger purse and the national television contract should help us in terms of attracting some of the marquee names and making sure we're among our peers with the purse that we're offering."

Last year's event was held on Labor Day weekend, near the end of the season, and was plagued by poor weather on the weekend. This year's tournament has been moved to July and falls one week before the $2 million Ford Seniors Players Championship in Dearborn, which is one of the four major championships. Nichols sees the move as an advantage to the tournament as well as the players.

"It's a move we've been requesting for a number of years," Nichols said. "The fact that the ease of travel and the proximity to the major championship should enable us to draw in some players just for the fact that everybody will be playing at the Ford the following week. Anytime that you can move up so that you're earlier in the schedule, the better off you're going to be. We're sandwiched between the third and four major events of the year. Typically, after the Ford guys are picking and choosing their events to tailor their schedule. Being between two majors is particularly good because you're going to have guys who want to keep playing. They're coming to Michigan so they might as well keep in playing shape and play here in Grand Rapids.

"The players will spend two weeks competing in tournaments in Boston and two weeks in Michigan so the players only have to get on a plane once," he added. "Anytime you can make the travel schedule easier for the players they appreciate that."

While the tournament has attracted such big names as Lee Trevino, Gary Player, Chi-Chi Rodriguez, Gary McCord and Lanny Wadkins in the past five years, Nichols hopes to attract some new names. "I'm hoping we can get the strongest field that we've ever had with the combination of the purse and being adjacent to the Ford," Nichols said. "I was at a senior tour event in March and even though it's still too early for commitments, the guys like the fact that the tournament was closer to the Ford. I'm confident that we'll get guys like Trevino and Player, a lot of the similar faces that we've had before, but we would like to add some new faces as well.

"Last year was first year for Tom Watson and Tom Kite on the tour, so obviously those would be two guys that we would be fortunate to get. You have to appreciate what you have, but you always look to add a few other names."

Last year's Senior PGA Tour Player of the Year, Larry Nelson, won the 2000 event at Egypt Valley as well as five other Senior Tour tournaments last season. He plans to return to Grand Rapids to headline the 2001 tournament. The Grand Rapids Jaycees and sponsoring officials have indicated that charity will remain the central focus of the tournament on the local level.

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