pblackwell, Fri, September 28th, 2007
So the star attraction pulled out before he even played nine holes on Thursday. Attendance was spotty. Local businesses did well, but did not boom. Fans paid more attention to the SU football upset of Louisville on Saturday. The finale was anticlimactic, with Steve Flesch throwing away strokes he didn’t need to win by two.
In other words, you’ve got plenty of reasons to carp about the inaugural edition of the Turning Stone Resort Championship, or wonder if it will take the presence of a Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson to turn this embryonic golf tournament into a happening.
Yet as far as debuts go, for the most part, it went quite well, and one left the premises of Atunyote Golf Club thinking that this tournament still has a full heap of potential – but only if the expectations are kept modest at first.
Above all else, the TSRC has its spot in the schedule serving as a lead anchor against explosive growth. This year’s event fell a week after the PGA Tour’s much-hyped, four-week “playoffs” which culminated in Tiger finding new ways to flatten the opposition on his way to the FedEx Cup. And any tournament where he is not in the field is considered a lesser event.
Next year, it’s not any better, with the show slated to go a week after the Ryder Cup at Valhalla in Louisville. If Flesch, a native of Kentucky, found his way onto the U.S. team, would he defend at Atunyote, given the strain the Ryder Cup puts on everyone involved? That’s an interesting question.
These are factors and circumstances even Ray Halbritter can’t control. However, with the way he and the rest of the Turning Stone crowd treated all the players throughout last week’s festivities, it can’t help but make top players consider a visit to Verona.
All the golfers got first-class accommodations at the hotel, reservations taken care of at the restaurants, and were treated to nightly shows by the likes of ZZ Top and Larry The Cable Guy and yes, quite a few tried their luck in the casino. Staying at the resort assured that no one had any trouble getting to the course, unlike many PGA Tour events where they rent out private homes and might have to fight traffic.
If someone wanted to do some high-quality fishing, no problem – those helicopters you saw flying around Atunyote were being used to take the players to high-quality streams where they could cast a line in peace. And in contrast to other places, where missing the cut on Friday meant a quick trip to the airport, most of the players stayed for the weekend.
Perks are nice – but for professional golfers, the course is even more important. By every measure, Atunyote drew massive raves from the participants for its condition and playability, and these guys are a demanding crowd most of the time.
Higher powers got in the act, too. Except for a few giant raindrops on Saturday, the place was bathed in sunshine from the moment the players arrived to the moment Flesch put his hands on the trophy.
In fact, it was downright hot the first two days of play. And with wide fairways, soft greens and a lack of any appreciable wind, Atunyote got torn up. To make the cut, it required 140, four under par, so a U.S. Open-type run of pars meant a quick exit from the stage.
John Daly’s exit was even quicker – seven holes before pulling out. He said it was “flu-like symptoms”, though given his troubled history, skeptics abounded. The main drag was that it took the tournament’s most famous name out of the picture before it could even be drawn.
By late Saturday, Flesch had taken charge. He’s 40, but looks younger, and his combination of deadly accurate irons and a hot putter meant the rest of the field would mostly chase him on the weekend. Flesch’s string of four birdies in the last five holes of the third round put him in front, and no one got closer than two shots on Sunday.
To the relief of the folks in charge, Atunyote began to display teeth in those last two rounds, thanks to gusty winds that shot up the scoring average and made everything, especially the putting, more of a puzzle. Already there’s talk of making the greens as firm as Augusta, to offset the generous fairways and put more of a premium on good approach shots and scrambling.
As for the spectator experience, well, it depends on what you want. If the desire is just to find alcohol, there might be some disappointment. But if traffic getting in and out of the parking lots is reasonable, food prices are not extreme, vantage points are plentiful and the volunteers do whatever is possible to keep things going smoothly – well, there’s little to carp about.
You’d have to think future tournaments at Atunyote will, from a competitive standpoint, be much better, with close finishes, a stronger course and an improved field once the word of mouth from players about how cool Turning Stone is spreads around. Sprinkle in some typical fall weather, and it could be even more of a test.
That might take years, though. From Halbritter on down, the main advice I’d give them would be to show patience and continue hard work. Keep doing both, and the event’s stature should grow. It already feels like one of the primary sporting events on the Central New York sports calendar, right there with SU football or basketball.
As it’s true in sports, expecting perfection out of an event this large is asking too much, but working toward that goal is reasonable. By any reasonable standard, the Turning Stone Resort Championship has taken a strong first step, and partaking in it left me tired and foot-sore – but also quite eager to experience it all again in 2008.