SAVANNAH, Ga. — Savannah’s lone professional golf tournament, the Legends of Golf, will not return in 2014 after 11 years, the Champions Tour announced Monday.
The event’s fate seemed sealed when Liberty Mutual Insurance, the longest running sponsor in pro golf at 34 years, officially parted ways in July from the 36-year-old tournament that was the genesis for the PGA’s current tour for golfers 50 and older.
Champions Tour President Mike Stevens had left open options for a new title sponsor, or for holding the PGA Tour-owned event without one but with increases from other revenue sources.
With formation of the 2014 tour schedule in its final stages, a decision had to be made on the search for a title sponsor.
“Unfortunately, the efforts to this point have not been fruitful,” Stevens said in a statement released Monday.
“The Westin Savannah Harbor Golf Resort & Spa, along with the Savannah community, have been a wonderful host of this event over the past 11 years,” he continued. “We are extremely grateful for the tournament’s many dedicated volunteers and sponsors who have helped us raise over $1.9 million for local charities through the years. Although we will not be returning to Savannah in 2014, our hope is that the Champions Tour will return to Savannah in the future.”
That hope did not go unnoticed by Mark Spadoni, general manager of the Westin, which hosts the event at The Club at Savannah Harbor. The facility had maintained readiness in case the tournament returned in April.
“It’s official now,” Spadoni said Monday. “We were not blindsided by this. The reality was there needed to be some sort of finality.”
The resort hotel, usually completely booked tournament week, will go back to its usual business as in the other 51 weeks a year.
“Our goal or objective was a long-term plan to try to figure out how to keep Champions Tour golf here in Savannah,” said Spadoni, noting “a great 11-year relationship” with tournament operator Championship Management and the title sponsor.
The catch was that contracts with the sponsor and the tour were short term. After a pair of four-year contracts, the Westin got only a two-year commitment and then, for 2013, a one-year extension. A second one-year option was not picked up by Liberty Mutual for 2014.
“We’ve got a good deal but it won’t last forever,” Spadoni said of the resort’s mindset. “We were at the mercy of the title sponsor and, to a certain extent, the tour. We were tied by their ultimate decision where they want to have an event.”
Spadoni would like the Westin to host a golf event in 2014 as “a bridge” to the 2015 season, possibly a pro-am during an open week on the Champions Tour. Keys to bidding for a future tour event, he said, include scheduling and a title sponsor that wants to be in Savannah — possibly a local company or a local organization similar to the nonprofit Heritage Foundation that has supported the PGA Tour event in Hilton Head Island, S.C.
If Gene Sauers had any say, the tournament would be staying. The Savannah native and resident won on the PGA Tour, then joined the Champions Tour after he turned 50 in August 2012. The 2013 Legends was his first chance to play in it — he and Kenny Perry finished second in the two-man team format — and, apparently, his last chance in Savannah.
“It’s really disappointing not having one in my backyard. A lot of the players are kind of upset about it,” said Sauers, who hosted players in his home. “Even Tom Watson said, ‘If they don’t have it in Savannah, I’m not going to play it.’ ”
Savannah was an attractive venue for the Legends, with the field regularly including golf legends Gary Player and Lee Trevino as well as Arnold Palmer in 2003 and Jack Nicklaus this year as Player’s partner in the Demaret Division for 70 and older.
“It carried a lot of weight with the players,” said Joe Rotellini, executive director of the tournament. “They enjoyed it and loved coming to Savannah.”