TRENDING UP: WINCO TOURNEY ON COURSE
NORTH PLAINS — As the thermometer works its way toward triple digits at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club on the final Sunday afternoon of August, the action is heating up in the WinCo Foods Portland Open.
Thirteen players began the day within three shots of the lead. The list included former University of Oregon standout Aaron Wise, who is standing over a difficult shot out of a fairway bunker on the seventh hole.
Tournament director Jeff Sanders is sitting in a golf cart surveying the situation.
In his heart, Sanders is pulling for Wise, a fellow Duck and the meal ticket for this year's event.
Sanders thrust Lagardere Sports' promotional efforts behind Wise in the months leading up to its fourth WinCo Foods Portland Open. And Wise — who won the individual title and led Oregon to the team crown in the 2016 NCAA Championships at Eugene Country Club — rewarded Sanders with by far the biggest galleries in the four-day, 72-hole tourney on the Web.com Tour.
Wise, 21, came through on the course, too, starting with rounds of 64 and 65 to lead the 156-player field.
"He played so well the first two days, and that doesn't happen very often," says Sanders, executive vice president for golf events in North America for Lagardere. "A lot of times, the hometown player puts a lot of pressure on himself and doesn't perform that well because he's trying too hard. In this case, Aaron shot lights out the first two days.
"When he won the NCAA title on his home course in Eugene, that probably helped him here. He had to play well in front of the hometown crowd and got the job done."
Wise crapped out with a third-round 75 at Witch Hollow, but was still within three strokes of the lead heading into Sunday's final round. He never regained his magical touch, finishing tied for 16th after a final-round 70.
But Wise's presence helped the tournament's visibility. Tickets sales were up 30 percent from a year ago, Sanders says.
"Today is our biggest day in four years running the event," he says. "We probably have 12,000 to 15,000 people on the course. That's a good crowd. For the week, we're probably close to 50,000, which is our best-ever attendance figure."
Sanders is fighting the "junior varsity" tag some elitists put on the Web.com Tour, which features the next-best 156 players on the PGA Tour. He cringes at the comparison to Triple-A baseball or G-League basketball. Many of the graduates of the Web.com Tour — such as Justin Thomas, Kevin Kisner, Brian Harman, Charlie Hoffman and Matt Kuchar — become PGA Tour stars.
So Sanders has worked systematically to gather corporate support and increase fans' awareness in the Portland area.
"We're building something," he says. "It takes a few years to take hold, but I'm really happy with where it's going. People understand this is PGA Tour golf that they're seeing here. This is big-time golf."
Corporate support is great to have, but it comes with the promise that sports fans will notice and, ultimately, attend the event.
"You have to have crowds," Sanders says. "No successful sports event doesn't have a nice crowd level. Our No. 1 priority is to put on a highly competitive tournament. The next priority is to raise the largest amount of money we can to charity.
"Both of those things come from nice crowds, especially in our model, where 100 percent of ticket sales go to charity. They're tied together."
Representatives of 160 Portland-area charities receive funding from the WinCo Foods Portland Open. They sell tickets and keep 100 percent of the profits. Fans buying a ticket online or at the gate must also select a charity to benefit.
In 2014, charities reaped $725,000. In 2015, the amount grew to $1.15 million. Last year, charities took in $1.2 million. This year, the payout was $1.275 million payout this year.
"That brings us to nearly $4.5 million in four years," Sanders says.
It's a major reason why WinCo Foods has chosen to extend its contract as the title sponsor for three more years, running to 2020.
"They extended it primarily because of the amount of money going to charity," Sanders says. "We've had a gradual building of everything. The charitable dollars are growing. The attendance is growing. The corporate support from local businesses is growing. The corporate support from outside of Oregon is growing. Everything is trending up."
Pumpkin Ridge's private side — Witch Hollow — has signed on to be the site for the tournament for the next three years. And by the way, it would be a great spot for a PGA Tour event in the future, wouldn't it?
"I'm very interested in where we go from here," Sanders says. "The fans are key to that possibility. They have to come out and support this event to allow it to continue, and maybe turn it into something bigger. Portland has lost a lot of sports teams and events over the years. We lose them because we lose that fan support. If the fans don't come out, the sponsors won't sign on.
"For this to become a regular PGA Tour event is possible, but it's going to require three more years of continuing to grow. But who knows? We'd always be open to looking at that."