Luke DeCock

SAS Championship preparing for senior golf playoff, one way or another

After 15 years at Prestonwood Country Club, the SAS Championship has things pretty much down. It has become extremely popular among Champions Tour players and has carved out a niche on the Triangle sports scene despite an October slot on the tour schedule that often conflicts with college football and the Carolina Hurricanes’ opening games.

This year’s tournament is in two weeks, Oct. 9-11. Next year’s tournament will be very different, one way or another.

As part of the Champions Tour’s 20-year title sponsorship extension with Charles Schwab, the senior circuit is adding a three-tournament playoff to the end of the schedule in 2016 and beyond that mirrors the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup. The finale will still be the Charles Schwab Cup Championship, held in November on the West Coast. The tour announced earlier this month that Richmond, Va., will host a new tournament in early November that will be the second playoff date.

The playoff opener has been widely rumored to be Savannah, Ga., a site the Champions Tour left in 2013 after more than three decades. It remains historically significant because senior golf essentially began there in the late ’70s with the Legends of Golf, the first successful tournament for over-50 pros.

The Champions Tour would love to go back to Savannah for reasons both sentimental and meteorological, and if being part of the playoff is what it takes to bring a title sponsor back aboard, that makes sense. But if Savannah – or anywhere else with friendly fall weather that would add a new tournament to the schedule – cannot get it together before the new playoff format is officially announced in November, the SAS Championship is ready.

“I think all along we’ve been their Plan B,” SAS Championship tournament director Jeff Kleiber said Monday. “We’re fine with that. If they come to us, and we have the opportunity, we’d welcome it. If they don’t, we’ve been a strong event for 15 years without a playoff. We’re not that concerned where we end up.”

The SAS Championship offers similar geographic advantages to Savannah – the weather is typically good, and at worst playable, and it’s convenient to Richmond – and has traditionally held this position on the calendar. Being part of the playoff, with the attention and visibility and novelty that would come with it, could give the SAS additional leverage with new sponsors and partners to grow the event.

On the other hand, after 15 years, it’s also doing just fine on its own. With a purse of $2.1 million – bigger than the Senior PGA and one of the largest on tour – it draws some of the best fields on tour of any non-major. The top 10 players in the Schwab Cup standings, 28 of the top 30 on the money list and 15 of this season’s 16 tour winners have committed to play this year, including Jeff Maggert, Colin Montgomerie and 2012 SAS winner Bernhard Langer.

Being the first tournament of the playoff would unavoidably mean a smaller field, but being the last tournament before the playoff could potentially cost the SAS some of its traditional star power if the top players want to take a week off. It also might entice some of the bigger names who only play the senior tour sporadically and are on the playoff bubble. Those circumstances have worked well for Greensboro’s Wyndham Championship on the PGA Tour.

“The playoff event may not be the right fit for what we’re trying to do, with the limited field and things like that,” Kleiber said. “We’ll see what happens over the next few weeks.”

What will definitely happen in two weeks is the 15th SAS Championship at Prestonwood, a pillar of the Champions Tour that has earned the right to pick its spot on the tour’s new schedule, whether that’s at the beginning of the playoffs or the end of the regular season.

DeCock:, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947