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Future of WGC event at Doral tenuous

DORAL, Fla. -- Ask those of a certain age what this area was like when the Doral Golf Resort opened in 1962 and you get some variation on the word "nothing.''

In the 1960s, the part of greater Miami where Trump National Doral sits might as well have been in the Gulf of Mexico. It was so far west of the city that it was considered "remote.''

Now, it's an incorporated city, with a population of 50,000 plus, myriad businesses and the corresponding traffic nightmares.

And it is in danger of losing its long-time golf tournament, one that is now in its 54th year on the PGA Tour, the second-longest-running tournament behind the event at Colonial Country Club.

This week's WGC-Cadillac Championship could be the last playing of the tournament here, and it is not solely because of owner Donald Trump and the political ramifications of his comments on the campaign trail regarding Mexicans and Muslims.

It goes beyond that. Cadillac is in its last year of title sponsorship, which is unlikely to renew, and it's not easy to find sponsors that are required to pony up well north of $10 million for one golf event.

And that does not even address another big issue that plagues the event: It might attract the top players in the world, but it is not the same experience -- at least anecdotally -- as it was prior to becoming a World Golf Championship event.

"The tournament has lost its luster,'' said Erik Compton, a PGA Tour player who lives in Miami. "The community just doesn't seem as involved.''

Compton, 36, has never played his hometown event since it became a WGC in 2007. He received sponsor exemptions to the tournament years ago when it was a regular, full-field event.

Last year, he decided to attend as a spectator with his daughter, Petra, and was surprised to see almost no one in the grandstands behind the 18th green.

"I don't think anything says it better than this,'' Compton said. "It was a corporate tent, but there was nobody in the tents and somebody asked us to leave. We got kicked out. She had an ice cream in her hand, and I told them I was a tour player, showed them my badge, and they still made us leave. If the tournament directors knew that, I'm sure they would be upset.

"But the community is really not part of it. It was one of the premier events on the PGA Tour and then it went totally corporate.''

That is partly by design. A WGC event with a $9.5 million purse requires more corporate support than a regular PGA Tour event. That is difficult to avoid.

But the old Doral had a flare that is missing today with its smaller field, no cut and late tee times on Thursday and Friday.

When it was a regular PGA Tour event, Doral was seemingly a must-play event on the way to the Masters. It kicked off the Florida Swing for many years in early March and typically drew many of the game's top players. If was often the launching point for Greg Norman (he won it three times) and even Jack Nicklaus, who first started playing the tournament in 1964 and competed there well into his 50s.

There was a nice vibe to the place, the first signs of true warmth anywhere in the country in the new year, with the Masters a few weeks down the road.

That changed when the event became a WGC, not because the field wasn't as good -- it was better, in theory, with all of the top-ranked players -- but because a lot of the local flavor was lost when the big corporations took over, seeking a return on their big investments and using it as a place to wine and dine. Ticket prices went up, and if you showed up at mid-morning on Friday, nobody was playing golf.

It is a bit of an issue at the WGC-Bridgestone in Akron, Ohio, as well. The event is well attended in a community that has had a golf tournament for years, but no-cut events with big-money guarantees remove some of the urgency. Despite the cash, players do not treat these events like major championships. There is no Wednesday pro-am, and little buzz until the weekend.

All of that impacts the atmosphere but it doesn't necessarily mean an event isn't successful. Since becoming a WGC, the Doral tournament has been won by Tiger Woods twice, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Patrick Reed and Dustin Johnson, among others. And following a golf course renovation prior to 2014, Doral's "Blue Monster'' returned to its place among the toughest on the PGA Tour.

But some players have grumbled about the difficulty, and Trump has meddled in some golf course agronomy and set-up issues since taking over as owner of the property in 2012 -- although he readily agreed to some changes that were made prior to this year's event.

Trump's politically charged comments only added to a tenuous situation. Ty Votaw, vice president of global marketing for the PGA Tour, said the tour is sticking with its statement from January that pledged its commitment to the tournament and Miami area for now.

"Following the tournament, all parties will examine the Cadillac Championship's successes on all levels and determine what's in store for the future,'' the statement said.

In 2013, the PGA Tour announced a 10-year contract extension with Trump National Doral through the 2023 event. But that deal is contingent upon title sponsorship, and with Cadillac's run all but over, the tournament's future is in question.

Finding title sponsors is a constant challenge for the PGA Tour and commissioner Tim Finchem, and it becomes more of an issue with a WGC, which commands a higher price.

But as one agent who wished to not be identified said, "Finchem has a history of pulling off miracles. He's done it a number of times even when the economy was horrible. Don't put it past him.''

A departure from Doral would be a shame, considering the history. Billy Casper won the inaugural Doral Country Club Open Invitational in 1962, beating Paul Bonderson by a stroke at 283, 5 under par. A year later, Sam Snead finished runner-up to Dan Sikes. Nicklaus was a shot behind Casper in 1964 but would go on to win the tournament twice. Lee Trevino, Andy Bean, Hubert Green, Raymond Floyd (three times), Lanny Wadkins and Ben Crenshaw were among the other winners.

The tournament suffered a lull in the early 2000s after a sponsorship change, but was rejuvenated again around the time Ford became title sponsor in 2003.

That helped get Mickelson -- who had an endorsement with the company at the time -- into the field and Woods also returned. The two had a memorable duel that went down to the final hole in 2005 and they battled again the next year, with Woods coming out on top both times.

The following year, in 2007, the PGA Tour schedule saw significant change with the advent of the FedEx Cup and playoffs. The Doral event, as it was known, changed to the world event that had previously been called the American Express Championship (Woods has won it a total of seven times). It was played at various sites, including twice in Spain, twice in Ireland and once in England.

Mickelson remembers those duels with Woods well, but has no issue with the present formation of the tournament.

"What I like about it is Miami's a kind of town that encompasses the world,'' said Mickelson, one of 13 players in the field this year. "You see people from every part of the world. Then to have a World Golf Championship in Miami and you see some of the best players from all different parts of the world.

"It's a good fit, I think. It's a good golf course that has historical value going back to the 1960s, when Doris and Al Kaskel made Doral. To see it as a World Golf Championship event is a good thing.''

Mickelson is correct that, in theory, Miami is perfect for a WGC. But the sponsorship issue, as well as the course owner, conspire to make some uneasy times around here.

"I would prefer it to be a regular PGA Tour event like the old days,'' Compton said. "It was the best event in Florida.''