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KERRY EGGERS ON SPORTS/Portland tourney feels right to organizers, sponsor, golf pros

TRIBUNE PHOTO: DIEGO G. DIAZ - Stacy Lewis, 2017 LPGA Cambia Portland Classic champion, accepts the trophy Sunday from Tom Maletis of Tournament Golf Foundation during ceremonies on the 18th green at Columbia Edgewater Country Club.He always looks as relaxed as a man sleeping in a hammock in the shade, but Tom Maletis seemed especially at peace as he sat for an interview during Sunday's final round of the 46th annual Cambia Portland Classic.

Another edition of one of the state's premier sports events was almost in the books, and its future seems more secure than it has in a while.

"It's been a good week, for a lot of reasons," said Maletis, in his 26th year as tournament director and president of Tournament Golf Foundation.

Since 1972, the Portland Classic — under various monikers — has been a fixture on the LPGA Tour. Only the ANA Inspiration in Rancho Mirage, California — formerly the Dinah Shore and Kraft Nabisco Classic — has been on the circuit as long on a continuous basis.

Three years ago, though, the Portland tournament was teetering on near collapse. Safeway had pulled out as title sponsor after an 18-year run, and TGF officials were scrambling for a replacement.

Cambia Health Solutions came on late for a trial run as the event's "presenting sponsor," but there were no guarantees its sponsorship — or the tournament — would go on past that.

But Cambia signed on to be the title sponsor in 2015, then renewed for one-year deals the following two years.

Now, said Maletis, he is in negotiations with Cambia President/CEO Mark Ganz to extend their arrangement.

"We're in discussions for a multi-year commitment," Maletis said Sunday.

Does he feel confident a deal will get done?

"It's not even an option to not get it done," Maletis said. "It's coming to us. We are moving forward with Cambia and 2018, and hopefully beyond."

Maletis said the event will return to Columbia Edgewater Country Club, where it has been held the past four years.

"Columbia has been great," he said. "We have no reason to look anywhere else. It's a great viewing course, and it's a traditional Northwest course. The ladies are playing 6,400 to 6,500, the exact yardage of the blue blocks. The way they are hitting it from the blues, the bunkers come into play. You don't have to move tees around. You set the women up on the blue tees here and it's like the course was meant for them.

"The pros really like it. You don't have to do an awful lot for the course to accommodate the LPGA."

Ganz told me a year ago that he isn't just financially invested in the Portland Classic. He is emotionally invested as well.

"This is special," he said then. "I believe in the LPGA. I believe in its excellence. The women get it. They know how to interact with the public. They don't act entitled. They act grateful. It's such a nice thing to be part of something that just feels right."

Cambia ponied up a major portion of the $1.3 million purse the women pros played for in this year's Portland Classic. Whatever profits are made from the tournament go to charity. Last year, more than $250,000 was sent to Oregon junior golf and Portland-area charities.

This is the first time the tournament has been held over Labor Day weekend.

"The date is fine," Maletis said. "It's all right with us. We used to be in mid-September, which was terrible. All the kids were in school, and it seemed like we were always going against Oregon and Oregon State football games."

Last year, because of the inclusion of golf in the Olympic Games at Rio de Janeiro, the Portland Classic was held over the Fourth of July weekend.

"We really got affected," Maletis said. "More volunteers, fans and junior golfers, they were on vacation over July 4th.

"Labor Day isn't as bad. Yeah, we still went up against the Ducks and Beavers, but it was just on Saturday. Families are getting ready to send their kids back to school, and more of them are saying, 'It's a three-day weekend. Let's go out and watch golf.' And (the adults) don't have to go to work (on Monday morning). It may not be the most ideal scenario, but with the good weather and everything, we can live with it."

Temperatures were sizzling this year, and the thermometer hit triple digits on Sunday's final day. But Columbia Edgewater's tree-lined course provided plenty of shade for fans, who didn't seem to mind the heat — at least not too much.

"I saw more people coming out in the mornings this year," Maletis said. "But they were here."

Last year's four-day attendance was estimated at 70,000. "I think we exceeded that this year," Maletis said.

A year ago, only seven of the top 25 money-winners on the tour played Portland. This year, the number was 12, and it would have been 13 had not Michelle Wie been forced to withdraw due to an emergency appendectomy. That's far fewer than in the tournament's heydays, when it annually had nearly all the premier players on hand.

"But I'm happy with the field," Maletis said.

There was Canadian teenager Brooke Henderson, going for a three-peat of the title she won in 2015 and '16 (she tied for 15th). And Houston native Stacy Lewis, taking the lead in Friday's second round and holding on to win — and then donating her $195,000 champion's check to benefit victims of hurricane Harvey.

"Stacy was the story this week," Maletis said. "And what a great story is is."

Cambia wants to keep developing the event on a local theme. Maletis said that was the thought behind an advertising campaign that trumpeted slogans such as "Keeping Portland Passionate," and "Keeping Portland Powerful."

"It's sort of a shakeup of 'Keep Portland Weird,'" Maletis said with a smile. "Since Cambia has gotten involved, we're bringing out the 'Portland' part of it more. We want to get it more localized. Not that we didn't with Safeway, but then it was a more domestic/international scope.

"I can't stress enough how much Cambia believes in Portland, the community and the people here. We're bringing on more concessions with a Portland/Northwest feel, and we'll continue to build on that."

When Safeway was the title sponsor, it played host to a food fair that was popular with the fans.

"That brought in a lot of people," Maletis said. "We miss it. We may revive it somewhat — though not on the same level — to get more Northwest vendors involved. We're looking at a lot of things to bring it more neighborhood feeling."

The LPGA Tour seems to be doing well. The circuit now has 34 tournaments, including 20 in North America. A few years ago, the number had dropped below 30.

The tour still suffers a bit because of the influx of South Koreans, who now hold six of the top eight spots, and nine of the top 20, on the LPGA money list. It is harder for American fans to identify with foreign players.

"I understand that perception," Maletis said. "But I don't believe it's a problem at all.

No. 1, they're great people. Many of the Koreans on the tour now grew up in Florida or played college golf in the U.S. Most of them speak great English.

"It's completely different than it was 10 to 15 years ago. It's an international tour. They're fantastic players. They have a great work ethic. They're really a hoot. Some of the most popular ladies on the tour with the Americans are the Koreans. And anyway, I want the best players in the world playing in my tournament."

Maletis had a lot of them participating this year. Thanks to Cambia, it's going to happen next year, too, and with any luck, for years to come.

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@kerryeggers

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