Lake Norman & Mooresville

River Run Country Club prepping for tournament

Adam Hadwin hoists the trophy and wears the yellow jacket after winning the Chiquita Classic.
Adam Hadwin hoists the trophy and wears the yellow jacket after winning the Chiquita Classic.

It’s less than a week until the PGA’s Tour returns to River Run Country Club, and Chris Hensler is deep in the details of the club’s biggest golf tournament of the year.

“Things are going well,” said Hensler, River Run’s director of golf. “We’ve got a lot of committees that are run by a lot of the membership that help to organize this.”

Yet this year’s Small Business Connection Championship, scheduled for Sept. 14-20, will have several noticeable differences.

For starters, it’s no longer the Chiquita Classic.

Parent company Chiquita Brands International Inc., which relocated its corporate headquarters from Cincinnati to Charlotte in 2011, was acquired by Cutrale-Safra, a partnership between Brazilian fruit distributor Cutrale Group and investment firm Safra Group.

The $1.3 billion deal made the combined Chiquita-Cutrale Group the world’s largest distributor of fruit and juice products.

However, the sale also ended the company’s presence in the region – in mid-January, company officials announced that Chiquita’s Charlotte offices would be closed.

Closure of the company’s headquarters also ended Chiquita’s sponsorship of the Tour event. According to Hensler, Chiquita had to buy out the final year of its three-year sponsorship agreement with River Run.

“Having Chiquita involved certainly made the event a great one,” Hensler said. “As far the event goes on our end now, we’re still going to try to run an outstanding golf event. We want to make sure the tour players and spectators that come to the event have the best experience they can possibly have.”

With the departure of Chiquita, which had its own people running the tournament the past two years, the PGA Tour brought on international sports marketing agency IMG to help find sponsorship and handle day-to-day operations, Hensler said.

“When they were pulling out of Charlotte, they were pulling up all the stakes and moving on,” Hensler said.

The River Run event is still part of the four-tournament Tour finals, from which the 25 top money earners will receive their PGA Tour “cards” for the 2016 season.

Some planned changes were put on hold because of the Chiquita pullout – for example, an expansion of the corporate hospitality area was shelved – and others things were scaled back.

But other planned improvements not related to the tournament are underway, according to Hensler. A short-game practice area is in the final stages of completion near the 18th green, and Davidson College is building a new golf house for its golf team on the expanded driving range.

“We’re also doing a massive clubhouse renovation this winter,” Hensler said. “We’ve revamped our driving range with Davidson and building their golf house here, and our short game facility that probably is second to none in the area. We’ve got a lot of stuff still going on here.”

Yet Hensler said this is still a PGA Tour-sanctioned event, which means there are certain expectations from the host club.

“This event will have a little more of a toned-down flair to it,” Hensler said. “There won’t be as many of the grandstands that people have seen in the past on No. 18. … But leading up to it, it still has very much the same feel from what they’ve done in the past.

“But it’s still a big event – these guys that are playing are trying to make their way onto the PGA Tour for next year. Obviously, there will be a lot of big-name players that will be playing in the event.”

Bill Kiser is a freelance writer: