BACK IN THE SWING
Local businesses band together to sponsor new professional golf tournament
POTTSTOWN » On the surface, this may seem like a golf story. It is not. It is a business story.
It is the story of how the loss of one large business – IVB Bank – led to the demise, years ago, of a popular PGA Tour stop at Whitemarsh Valley Country Club. And how an amazing effort by small businesses in the region will bring back a professional golf tournament to Montgomery County next week.
For some people, references to the IVB Classic – the PGA Tour event that was held at Whitemarsh Valley Country Club – are scraps of ancient history. Faded, vague memories of the Greater Philadelphia area’s sports legacy.
But, for others, they bring back vivid images of the greatest names in golf – coming to the area and being part of an event that was an annual summer festival.
Ed Shearon is one of the people from the latter group. He grew up in Whitemarsh Township ... an active youngster who enjoyed all sports. But, after getting an up-close-andpersonal look at the PGA Tour stars virtually playing in his backyard, golf moved to the forefront.
It became his passion … and an important part of the rest of his life.
“As a kid, I did anything I could to get close to the action at the IVB,” said Shearon. “We couldn’t afford a ticket but we used to wait outside the gates and ask the businessmen who were leaving after lunchtime for their tickets. The entire event seemed bigger than life and it captured my attention. Looking back on it, I have to admit that it was a major driving force in my life.”
Shearon went on to establish a very successful landscape design and maintenance company, Shearon Environmental. Then he added another company. Shearon Design became his golf course architecture company and he went on to design and build three very successful golf courses in the Greater Philadelphia area – RiverWinds in West Deptford, New Jersey; Vineyard Golf at Renault Winery, near Atlantic City; and Raven’s Claw in Pottstown.
The last of the three, Raven’s Claw, will be in the center of the spotlight May 21 to 26 when a professional golf tour makes its first regular stop in Montgomery County since the IVB Classic left Whitemarsh in 1980. The LPGA Symetra Tour’s Valley Forge Invitational is a welcome rebirth of golf in the area.
Many people never understood how professional golf could leave a major market like Philadelphia … and not return for almost 40 years.
It certainly wasn’t for a lack of interest. Montgomery County is the golf capital of Pennsylvania and it wasn’t for a lack of fan support. Large crowds returned each year to see players such as Jack Nicklaus (three times), Tom Kite, Tom Weiskopf (twice), Billy Casper and Arnold Palmer win tournaments at Whitemarsh Valley.
It was strictly a matter of sponsorship.
Originally known as the Whitemarsh Open Invitational and then the Philadelphia Classic, the tournament began in 1963 and continued every year through 1980. In 1969 it picked up IVB Bank as a title sponsor and enjoyed strong support for the next 12 years.
But, as happens often in the banking industry, IVB Bank was sold and the tournament lost its title sponsor. The search for a replacement ran up against a common obstacle — there are very few corporate headquarters in the Philadelphia region ... at least of the size needed to sponsor a PGA Tour event. That price tag is now upwards of $7 million a year.
So, while courses were built and others were renovated with the hope of attracting a PGA Tour event, one question always remained. Where is the sponsor?
Fast forward to 2017 and the Valley Forge Tourism & Convention Board launched a major new initiative as part of its aggressive promotion of business opportunities in the region. Destination Montco Golf was born. Capitalizing on the idea that golf-rich Montgomery County possessed more than 50 golf courses, leaders began to look toward bringing back a professional tournament.
VFTCB leaders such as Mike Bowman, Lisa Karl, Ed Harris and Mark Kaminetsky worked in brainstorming sessions with people from the golf industry. Was there a way around this sponsorship obstacle?
The idea was tossed about: If nobody was big enough to come up with the needed sponsorship dollar, was it possible to find it by running around and picking up 100 pennies?
After discussing all of the possible professional golf tours that could be hosted under this scenario, the LPGA’s Symetra Tour was targeted. Originally known as the LPGA Futures Tour, it is the official developmental women’s golf tour of the LPGA Tour.
After a tour date was reserved, Pottstown Health and Wellness Foundation was situated as the charity beneficiary and Raven’s Claw was selected as a suitable site, the Valley Forge Tourism & Convention Board immediately “put its money where its mouth was.” VFTCB became the new tournament’s Presenting Sponsor. The inaugural Valley Forge Invitational had its first sponsor.
“It was a natural for us,” commented VFTCB President Mike Bowman. “Our main purpose is promoting business in the region – putting heads in hotel beds, bringing people to the stores, filling the restaurants. What could do it better than a professional golf tournament? And, that is especially true for an event that promotes women’s golf. After all, we have the King of Prussia Mall, the new Town Center and the Philadelphia Outlet Center right down the street from Raven’s Claw.”
The tourism board proved to be a pied piper for other businesses. They quickly followed the lead.
Historic SunnyBrook Ballroom in Pottstown was next – striking a sponsorship deal to host the gala Meet the Pros Reception on Tuesday, May 22. The players, sponsors, pro-am participants and their guests will be in attendance that evening. SunnyBrook Ballroom – and its a la carte restaurant, Gatsby’s -- will be on display, under new ownership, as one of Pottstown’s most revitalized businesses.
“Gatsby’s at The SunnyBroook Ballroom is honored to be a sponsor of the Valley Forge Invitational and the host the Meet the Pros Reception,” said Chuck Gulati, owner and driving force behind the renaissance of the property. “This is a great opportunity for our community and local businesses to showcase all we have to offer. The Symetra Tour will bring tourists to Montgomery County, while boosting the economy and continuing the revitalization of Pottstown. We are excited to be a part of the regrowth of Pottstown and the road to the LPGA Tour.”
With two of the larger pieces of the puzzle in place, it was time to fill in the rest of the pieces. Each of the sponsorships came with a three-player team of amateurs that would play with one of the Symetra Tour pros. This was needed to fill the pro-am field on Wednesday, May 23.
Yuengling Brewery was next up. Although based just a few miles north in Pottsville, the company had an even closer tie to Montgomery County. Yuengling Chief Operating Officer David Casinelli lives in Skippack and was keenly aware of the local business effort that was underway.
From left, Yuengling Brewery Chief Operating Officer David Casinelli, Valley Forge Tourism Board Director of Marketing Ed Harris, Raven’s Claw GC owner Bob Davis, Valley Forge Tourism Board Vice President Lisa Karl, Pottstown Health and Wellness...