Gaston & Catawba

Efforts in Catawba afoot to revive Champions Tour golf tournament

Organizers and supporters of Champions Tour golf tournament have felt let down over the loss of the annual event. .

Yet there is hope that the Greater Hickory Kia Classic at Rock Barn could return.

“We’re discouraged, disappointed, but we’re not throwing in the towel,” said Jim Correll, the tournament executive director and president of the Greater Hickory Classic Foundation, which was responsible for organizing the tournament and securing sponsorship to finance it.

He said that as the foundation seeks to secure a deal, it will stay in contact with the Professional Golf Association, which announced last month that the tournament was replaced with one in San Antonio.

Taking place at the Rock Barn Golf & Spa in Conover since 2003, the nationally televised tournament was considered one of largest sporting events in the region, drawing an estimated 65,000 to 75,000 visitors each year and generating some $16 million to $18 million in spending, according to a study by the Western Piedmont Council of Governments regional planning agency. For its part, the foundation donated more than $1.3 million to charities in the area during the same period, Correll said.

But beyond an economic impact, the tournament carried prestige. Preceded by a week of smaller golf matches and other activities, the 54-hole tournament lasted three days and comprised 81 players, many of them legends in the golf world.

“We were very fortunate,” said Danny Hearn, president and chief executive of the Catawba County Chamber of Commerce.

He said the tournament took place in one of the smallest metropolitan areas on the Champions Tour schedule.

Financing the tournament was a constant challenge, he said, describing it as a “struggle” to try to “make something work that really wasn’t supposed to.” But he said the area will take a “significant hit” from its cancellation.

“No one wants to lose an event that hundreds of communities around the world would love to have,” Hearn said.

Costing $4 million to $4.5 million each year, the tournament relied largely on sponsorship money from businesses in the region, including the golf resort and Kia Motors. But the foundation had struggled to obtain a title sponsor, which account for about $1.5 million to $3 million, depending on the size of tournament and prize money, said Correll, the tournament executive.

While in talks with several potential sponsors during the years, the foundation had failed to come up with the money needed to pay for the tournament next year, he said.

“It just caught up with us,” Correll said. Even though it had the help of more than 600 volunteers each year, the foundation had operated with a scant budget and a skeleton crew in recent years. Referring to the cost of the tournament, he added: “As much as we strive to cost cut… it just continued to escalate.”

Despite the financial difficulties, the foundation remains hopeful, seeking to secure a two- to three-year deal with a title sponsor.

“We’ll continue to search,” Correll said.