Club members nearly killed a deal to bring back this week’s PGA Tour Champions event

·5 min read

SIOUX FALLS, South Dakota — Miguel Angel Jimenez stood in the Minnehaha Country Club driving range Thursday morning, stretching with a club in his arms, a lit cigar dangling from his mouth. Just then a fan approached him and asked for a selfie. Jimenez nodded, leaned in and smiled toward the man’s phone, then went back to work as the man thanked the 2020 Sanford International champion and scurried away.

A short chip shot away, Bernhard Langer stood on a practice green and strained to squeeze his name onto a golf ball, fulfilling the autograph request of a fan who had nervously approached the two-time Masters champion.

Those little moments have made the Sanford International a success in Sioux Falls, and the PGA Tour Champions event returns this week for the fourth year of its original five-year contract. And thanks to a summer agreement that wasn’t exactly last-minute but was definitely taking long enough to make organizers nervous, there’s an extended future for the tournament in Sioux Falls, as a deal was struck with Minnehaha Country Club to keep it there through 2024.

A year ago when the tournament was getting underway, the COVID-19 pandemic was still canceling and limiting sporting events across the country, and the Sanford International went out of its way to advertise itself as the first major sporting event to allow fans. They pulled it off largely without incident, and the tournament was a rousing success, with Angel Jimenez memorably celebrating his victory with a cigar on the 18th green and a glass of wine at his post-round press conference.

Erin Bormett / Argus Leader
Erin Bormett / Argus Leader

But behind the scenes there were rumblings that getting Minnehaha membership to agree to an extension was not the sure thing outsiders might expect.

While the tournament itself is essentially one week of events, its overall presence at the country club covers more than two months, in the height of golf season. After an initial breakdown in talks after the Minnehaha board of directors rejected an extension proposal, the two sides got back to the table this summer and struck a deal.

Now, as the fourth year of the event kicks off, there’s a strong sense of relief among tournament organizers.

Erin Bormett / Argus Leader
Erin Bormett / Argus Leader

“I can remember pretty vividly sitting here in this exact spot a year ago and being asked what the future of the tournament looked like, and saying we had every intention of extending it,” said Sanford executive vice president Micah Aberson. “And then finishing that press conference and saying to (tournament director) Josh Brewster, ‘We should probably figure out how to get that done.’ It was a bit of an adventure to get there, but we’re extremely excited to extend it and very happy that it will be here at Minnehaha Country Club for at least (three more years after this).”

Sanford International: What you need to know about the 2021 event

After hearing the concerns of membership and taking steps to address them, the extension was reached.

“It was kind of a scary process, but I think at the end of the day the membership, the tournament and all the sponsors understood what was at stake for the community,” Brewster said, referring not just to the warm reception the Sanford International has received from local sports fans, but the philanthropic impact it has on the community.

Tournament made concessions to get more country club members on board

Of course, now it’s time to deliver, and win over the members who still weren’t in favor of keeping the event.

“We made a lot of promises,” Aberson said. “The membership met us in the middle, but then my gaze goes to Josh and his team and it’s time to execute on all that now. I’m proud of the work they’ve done. We want the membership to feel like this is their tournament, too. We want them to have pride in the Sanford International just like we have, and I feel like we’re making progress in that regard.”

Erin Bormett / Argus Leader
Erin Bormett / Argus Leader

A membership tent is new this year, along the 17th green, and plans were reworked to get the village assembled faster and with less of an impact on the course. A new merchandise pavilion has been added to the 9th green, and concessions will be expanded around the course. Most of the other logistical changes, however, were behind the scenes.

“I think the players and fans won’t see too much (difference),” Brewster said. “A lot of it was on the front end, just in regards to the construction we do. We had to look internally to how do we do it quicker and make it less of a burden on membership.”

While the course always receives extra care for a televised PGA event, it looks objectively even better than usual this year, thanks in part to heavy rains a few weeks ago and recent sunshine. Ticket sales are up over 30 percent from last year.

“I’ve been coming here for 15 years and I don’t think I’ve ever seen the golf course in better shape than it is now,” said tournament host and two-time U.S. Open winner Andy North.

“The course looks very good, it’s great,” added Jimenez. “No complaints about that. I hope we have a beautiful weekend.”

North added that the field is also as good as it’s ever been. Big names like Ernie Els and Fred Couples are back after debuting last year, while Jim Furyk is here for the first time. Furyk is vice captain of the U.S. Ryder Cup team, serving under captain Steve Stricker, the winner of the inaugural Sanford International.

Erin Bormett / Argus Leader
Erin Bormett / Argus Leader

That they’re both here the week before the Ryder Cup illustrates how this event has resonated with the tour pros. They don’t skip this one.

And they’re happy it’s staying in Sioux Falls.

“I had heard the rumblings of maybe not being here any longer,” Stricker said. “So I’m very excited to come back here and for the guys to come back here. I think it’s a great venue for us. It’s challenging – the greens are great, they’re tricky. And you got a good support system here. The people show up here to support the event. I was concerned when I heard that (the tournament may leave), so good news that it’ll be coming back here.”