It had pretty much everything you’d want in a golf tournament.
Plenty of final-round drama, including a come-from behind champion in Derek Barron with a compelling backstory. A ridiculous round of 12-under par through 17 holes, with a chance at 59 that still turned into a course-record 61 for Will Gordon. Winnipeg Jets forward Kyle Connor in action. Six locals in the field, including Selkirk’s Travis Fredborg making his professional debut. A course in immaculate condition. Two holes-in-one. Favourable weather. Energetic volunteers. Generous corporate sponsors.
The list goes on. Indeed, the just-completed Players Cup, the 100th anniversary of the local event, would be considered a swinging success but for one not so insignificant factor: despite giving everyone free admission, there was almost nobody out at Southwood Golf & Country club last week to watch it.
Talk about a red flag.
For those who are fans of the sport — and I would certainly put myself in that category — it was a surprising and alarming scene. And it continued a recent trend where the top pros on the Mackenzie Tour, who are knocking on the door of teeing it up on the PGA Tour, are pretty much hearing crickets with every shot they take when they come to town.
That’s not a figure of speech, by the way. There literally are crickets everywhere on the sprawling, 300-acre course that opened in 2011 and runs adjacent to the Trappist Monastery Ruins in St. Norbert. Lots of wild turkeys, too. Even a few snapping turtles.
Because no tickets were sold this year, organizers are unable to say exactly how many spectators took in the four-day tournament. But I’m told it’s likely just a "few hundred" total — and down from last year’s numbers in which people still had to pay their way in.
Safe to say you can cross off cost as a potential reason for the decline.
"I’ve been asking myself that question, too," Players Cup executive director Adam Boge said Wednesday when I asked him where all the fans have gone for a tournament that, during its heyday in the 1980s and ’90s used to routinely attract thousands of Manitobans every year to watch the best golf they’d see all year in their own backyard.
Go figure that the competition itself has never been better, with the calibre on this tour at an all-time high and players often jumping right to the PGA Tour within months of playing in Winnipeg, and yet fewer and fewer people are watching it.
"I don’t have an answer for you other than it’s on my task list. We’re going to sit down and brainstorm and try to find out what the answer to the question is," said Boge, who took over the position from longtime director Ryan Hart following the 2017 tournament at Pine Ridge.
The decision to bring in a high-profile sponsor’s exemption in Connor this year, and teammate Mark Scheifele last year, was intended to bring extra eyeballs on the product. Same with the idea to not charge a penny to take it all in. Neither appeared to move the needle.
"We’re doing everything we can. We’ll keep on thinking outside the box. It’s something we’re going to work on this year as a group," said Boge.
There’s no question the sport itself has been suffering from reduced numbers across North America, especially among younger demographics. Less people are playing, television ratings have been declining and so perhaps it shouldn’t be a huge surprise to see the crowds getting smaller with each passing year.
Boge also cited competition from other sporting events in the city, such as last Thursday’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers game and the Winnipeg Goldeyes playing through the weekend at Shaw Park, folks heading out of town for our all-too-short summer weekends and the fact people can now follow the action through social media and the internet without actually coming out as other potential factors.
"I think it’s a combination of a lot of things. I just have to figure out what’s that secret formula. Maybe there is none," said Boge, who plans to canvas local golfers and other stakeholders over the coming months for ideas on how to make the 101st version of the event bigger and better.
I spoke to a handful this week, and one of the common themes I heard was the lack of advance advertising for the Players Cup. Boge conceded more could be done on that front going forward, along with trying to enhance the fan experience.
Others cite the perception that Southwood is too "out of the way" to go watch, but Jeff Scott, the chief executive officer of the course, said that’s simply not true, especially compared to longtime host Pine Ridge, where crowds were always bigger.
"One of the reasons that the Players Cup moved to Southwood was the access to over 50 per cent of the population located within 20 kilometres of the club. In addition, the club can accommodate over 1,500 cars on site, making it an ideal spot to host the tournament," Scott told me Wednesday.
Unfortunately, most of those parking spots sat empty this time around, creating a rather muted atmosphere around the course.
"There’s a set number of die-hard golfers, and that’s never changed. It’s sort of the periphery people that have either come to the game or left the game. But the core is always there, and I would argue it will always be there. I think it’s tapping into the people who are on the periphery," said Scott.
"I think it behooves us to make people understand this is something they should come see if they’re remotely interested in golf."
On the surface, you’d think the sparse turnout would be bad news for the tournament, which will finish out a three-year commitment at Southwood next August. Not so, said Boge.
"To have more attendance would be nice, but ultimately it’s not determinative of whether the event is a success or not," he said.
In essence, as long as the golfers and corporate partners are happy, the Mackenzie Tour is happy and the tournament remains healthy. That bottom line doesn’t necessarily change whether 200 or 2,000 people show up to watch — although I’m not sure that’s the best approach to take going forward.
"That’s almost a catch-22. You can have that mentality, but at some point it catches up with you where a sponsor looks around and goes ‘Why did we give money to this event?’" a source within the golf community told me Wednesday.
Now the trick going forward is to convince folks they’re truly missing out on something — and find a way to get them out to the course. If they can’t, you wonder just how many more anniversaries this tournament will celebrate going forward.
"I just want to get people out here because I think the talent and level of golf is so good. I don’t think people realize how good these guys are," said Boge.
No, they don’t. Certainly not like they used to.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.
Updated on Wednesday, August 21, 2019 at 11:22 PM CDT: Adds photo.