Not all PGA Tour title sponsors are happy; how about the Texas Open?

What’s this? A title sponsor on the PGA Tour is griping because Tiger Woods is not coming to their event, even though they spend millions to try to get him there?

No, it’s not Valero, the company that puts its name in front of the Texas Open. But, with the Valero Texas Open a month away (March 27-30), a recent question-and-answer with Valero CEO Joe Gorder makes it clear that Valero is concerned the quality of the field that comes to San Antonio reflects the effort Valero puts into the event. Valero leads  the Texas Open to an annual PGA Tour record charitable contribution, last year hitting $10 million.

Gorder hasn’t publicly expressed frustration over the Valero Texas Open not getting Tiger Woods to show up. But the lack of  star power showing up to their well-paid-for event wears on a title sponsor. HSBC is reponsible for a $12 million purse at its PGA Tour event every fall in China, yet Tiger Woods skips it. “If you’ve got sponsors investing that level of money,” HSBC’s Giles Morgan said, “the players should respect the calendar.”

In that story, a golf analyst opined “that perhaps the tours should exert some back-room coercion” (to get Woods to play), and that “Woods’s continued absences could cost the sport plenty.”

“Back-room coersion”? Greg Norman, who’s production company operates the event for Valero, alluded to that last year: “Look, Valero over the years, quite honestly and to be very frank, has probably had the short end of the stick. The quality of their field has never been to the standard of the commitment the company has put into it. When you think about a company  that raises (more than) $9 million in one year for charity, (the PGA Tour) better step up to the plate for them.”

Indeed, if the PGA Tour advertises that “charity is the leading money-winner,” as it has done, then what Valero is feeding should be hitting right about on the PGA Tour sweet tooth.

Never forget, the PGA Tour has made nice with San Antonio. With Valero pumping sizeable charity money even five years ago, the PGA Tour opened the door for the Texas Open’s move from the overlooked “Fall Series” to the preferred Spring date.

Yet, until last year when Rory McIlroy (then No. 2 in the world) showed up, the PGA Tour usually couldn’t find a way to close the deal with strength of player fields. There were stories that showed the fields were weak in both 2011 and 2012, particularly in ’12 when Ben Curtis won and did not earn enough world-ranking points to qualify for a World Golf Championship event later that year because the Texas Open field was so weak.

Valero’s Gorder didn’t make a threat, veiled or otherwise, that the company is dropping out of sponsoring the Texas Open after the contract expires in 2018. But it’s clear the company has let the PGA Tour know that there could be a better job done in reciprocating Valero’s charitable effort in the form of “encouraging” (did someone else say “back-room coersion”?) the top players to hop on their private jets, fall out of their hotel feather beds at the JW Marriott across the way and play a  round of golf every now and then in the Texas Open.

Q: Greg Norman has said that you would think that a tournament that generates so much money to charity, which is really the PGA Tour’s sweet tooth, would get a field of players of more quality. He said it before last year’s event, and everyone recognizes the field eventually was better last year. Shouldn’t there be some sort of reward, namely  work by the PGA Tour to get more of its headline players to an event that generates record charitable contributions? Is that still a concern for Valero?

A: Sure it is. It’s very important. Having a date that is before the Masters is something that we’d like to retain, and  we’re grateful for it. And we’ve registered our desire with the PGA Tour, on a regular basis, and so they know where we are on this. We hope that the Tour looks at what we’re trying to do, that we’re trying to make this a premier event, (and) continue to work with us on it.

Q: Isn’t there precedent to “obligate” PGA Tour players to play in certain events? For example, Frys.com (the event Boerne-resident Jimmy Walker won in October) will have in its field — guaranteed — Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson at least once in the next three years. Woods and Mickelson are required to play in exchange for “conflicting-event releases” they were granted by the PGA Tour for permission to play in an exhibition in Turkey two years ago. The exhibition conflicted on the PGA Tour schedule on a concurrent week with the Frys. Could there be some outside-the-box thinking where the Tour can be encouraged to look at those using those releases for other events that warrant support, such as the Valero Texas Open where record amounts of money for charities are being generated on an annual basis?

A: We’d love to see that. But it’s hard. Professional golfers are independent businessmen. So it’s very difficult for their  association to insist that they do it. At the same time it would be great if there was some encouragement or some sort of strategy where we would be assured of (top players’ participation). The other thing, we don’t want to be dependent on the Tour. Really, what we’re focused on is let’s makethis a wonderful event, let’s make it a great place for players to bring their families if they want to do it. We’re in a beautiful facility here, right? We’ve got a great golf course that many of them said was too difficult initially. Well, Greg Norman came in and worked with the PGA Tour and reworked four greens and started taking some of the rocks out between  the fairways. We’ll continue to improve the golf course. For us managing the event, we need to continue to make it a more desireable event for them to come to.

Q: Valero is at $81 million in charitable contributions from the title sponsorship of the Texas Open and wants want to getto $100 million by the time the current sponsorship contract concludes. At the rate you’re going you’ll do it in a couple of years, not waiting until 2018.

A: What I didn’t say is that once we get there we’ll set another goal and try to move forward. Our commitment to charities is really what drives us (because) from a business perspective, it’s really hard to quantify the value (of the  sponsorship). Although, we’ll look at the TV (ratings), and say we got great ratings, and we got this many exposures andall that. But, honestly, if you said ‘Joe, are you selling a bunch more fuel as a result of the event?’, I’d probably tellyou ‘I don’t know.’ That being said, it’s significant enough for our San Antonio community, and it touches enough people,that it’s very important for us to maintain it.

Q: Does the increased drilling activity on the Eagle Ford play near San Antonio make it possible to have more people to look at your involvement in this and be bigger players in the charitable effort?

A: I don’t know that we’ve seen it yet. But I would suspect going forward, perhaps particularly in the areas of  hospitality, you would think this would be a great entertainment venue. We have the refinery in Corpus Christi and Three Rivers, so we have a significant amount of Eagle Ford running through the system today. Certainly the increased production  from that has raised the per-capita income for a lot of people down there and hopefully it does flow through to the event.

Q: Since the terrorist attack on the Boston Marathon, all events on the PGA Tour are stepping up on security. Valero had an incident with a protester on site at TPC last year (he posed as a volunteer, then unveiled a sign bringing attention to Valero’s refining of heavy-sour crude oil). What’s the security situation, because Valero can be a target?

A: Valero has security active out here and the San Antonio police are involved. It was dealt with very quickly last year and  there were no issues. I think the team with Greg Norman Productions has modified the processes on working people through the system and the training that they’re doing. I don’t know, beyond that, there’s much that can be done. I’m praying that, well, it’s amazing, you don’t think a golf tournament being something that would attract (protests). For someone to be concerned that we’re going to run heavy sour crude in our refineries, we run it today. And for that to be the issue, for them to spin stories, it’s disappointing. They look through the fact that we’re hosting a great, wonderful event here in town that’s doing all the things to help our kids.

Greg Norman (left), whose golf-event management company operates two PGA Tour events including the Valero Texas Open, shares a moment with Valero CEO Joe Gorder.

Greg Norman (left), whose golf-event management company operates two PGA Tour events including the Valero Texas Open, shares a moment with Valero CEO Joe Gorder.

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About longlostgolfer

This is the nba.com correspondent in San Antonio.
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