BACK IN THE SWING

Lo­cal busi­nesses band to­gether to spon­sor new pro­fes­sional golf tour­na­ment

Daily Times (Primos, PA) - - BUSINESS - By Tony Leodora For Dig­i­tal First Me­dia

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.

SUB­MIT­TED PHOTO

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...

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