John Clay

Kentucky’s PGA Tour event will be unique show organizers hope to grow

PGA’s Barbasol Championship great opportunity for Central Kentucky

The Barbasol Championship, a PGA Tour event, starts Thursday, July 19, 2018 at the Champions Trace golf course in Jessamine County. Executive Director Brooks Downing believes the event will be a great show for Central Kentucky.
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The Barbasol Championship, a PGA Tour event, starts Thursday, July 19, 2018 at the Champions Trace golf course in Jessamine County. Executive Director Brooks Downing believes the event will be a great show for Central Kentucky.

Brooks Downing has been involved in a lot of sporting events. He has worked for Cawood Ledford, Rick Pitino and Tubby Smith. He has headed the Bluegrass Sports Commission. He has organized tournaments. Being executive director of the PGA’s Barbasol Championship, however, is something different.

“I had no idea,” Downing said this past week.

Fans who come out for the professional golf tournament at Champions at Keene Trace in Jessamine County might have the exact same reaction. “We had no idea.”

Yes, this is an actual Professional Golfers Association Tour event, one conducted the past three years at the Robert Trent Jones course in Opelika, Ala. That location deemed too small and too hot, the PGA was considering a change of venue when a local group, led by Downing, jumped at the opportunity.

Not that this was a spur of the moment. Since acquiring the Champions course in 2014, owners Evan Mossbarger and B Frye had been hoping to lure a professional tournament, recruiting Downing to help with the efforts. The group had come close to getting a Champions Tour event, only to fall short, when Ric Clarson, former Florida basketball player (1975-79) and current PGA senior vice president, called Downing about the possibility of Lexington playing host to a tournament.

“I was saying I was unsure if would could get the sponsorship needed and he stopped me and said, ‘It already has a title sponsor,’” Downing said. “I said, ‘Keep talking.’”

The result was a four-year commitment for the Barbasol Championship, the PGA tournament held the same week as the British Open, which this year is being played at Carnoustie’s Championship Course in Scotland.

The downside to going up against the British Open is that most of the game’s bigger names are likely to be across the pond playing in one of the sport’s four major tournaments. And that will continue to be the case for the next four years.

The upside is that the Golf Channel has committed to televising the Barbasol each day after its and NBC’s British Open coverage concludes. That’s a 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. window pushing right up against primetime, meaning the leaders at Champions on the final days will be teeing off later in the afternoon. And after watching the British Open, its coverage beginning in the morning because of the time zone differences, golf fanatics will be looking for something else to watch.

Two more (good) things. There are plenty of really good golfers who do not qualify for the British Open. And the Barbasol qualifies for 300 FedExCup points. The winner receives a two-year exemption to play on the PGA Tour. Thus the tournament has drawn a representative field.

“I think we have a nice mix of names you know and fresh faces,” Downing said. “So you can watch Tiger and Phil in the morning and get out there in the afternoon for the leaders teeing off at 2 o’clock.”

Putting on such a tournament is no small task, of course. A group of regular vendors that follow the tour help supply the event, but there are more than 700 mainly local volunteers — “And I could use more,” Downing said — performing the essential tasks involved in a professional golf tournament.

Most of all, Downing wants the tournament to (a) grow and (b) benefit local charities. Estimates are that the tournament could mean as much as $20 million in economic impact. The John Deere Classic, which precedes the Barbasol on the PGA schedule, donates $12 million to charities in the Quad Cities in Illinois and Iowa. The Barbasol isn’t in that ballpark yet, but Downing sees it as something to shoot for.

Next year will provide another wrinkle. The PGA Championship is moving from August to May. The FedExCup playoffs are moving up on the calendar. So the Barbasol will be one of the last tournaments to earn qualifying points before the playoffs begin.

Meanwhile, there is plenty of last-minute work to be done ahead of this year’s debut, the proof being the unopened boxes lining the halls inside the Champions clubhouse. Things are taking shape, however. Player practice starts Monday.

“We know we’re lucky enough to have this for the next four years,” Downing said, “but we’re hoping it goes 24 years.”

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