This is a dark hour for Milwaukee golf. The U.S. Bank Championship and its four decades of history are seriously at risk.
There was a hopeful finale on Sunday, when Madison native Jerry Kelly, a member of the tournament's board of directors, briefly grabbed a share of the lead. But it was not to be. Bo Van Pelt eventually won an exciting two-hole playoff over John Mallinger.
But that thrilling finish pales next to the tournament's uncertain future. The event that began in 1968 as the Greater Milwaukee Open now has one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel. U.S. Bank, citing a lack of community support and interest, didn't renew a three-year option. Sunday's crowds were sparse despite a plea for support from Kelly. It's sad to say, but the proud old GMO is dead unless a new title sponsor is found.
That's no small feat during a recession, especially in a state better known for dairy products than corporate headquarters. Even U.S. Bank was a reach as a sponsor it's based in Minneapolis.
The tournament's demise began with the FedEx Cup in 2007, which caused a shift in the PGA Tour schedule, bumping the U.S. Bank to the date opposite the British Open. With a second-rate field and ANCT (Absolutely No Chance of Tiger), corporate sales and crowds immediately began to dwindle. A glaring lack of promotion and marketing didn't help.
Kelly and fellow pro Steve Stricker, also a Madison resident, hope to come to the rescue. They have talked to potential sponsors and tour officials about moving to another date, presumably the Buick Open's slot in early August if the beleaguered automaker drops its sponsorship, as expected. No one is talking details, but the very, very tentative plan reportedly includes a proposed Greater Wisconsin Open rotating to sites in Madison, Milwaukee and possibly Kohler. (The rotation is not likely to include the current site, Brown Deer Park.)
Kelly said he's "80-, 90-percent solid that we're going to get something done." In a telling comment, he added: "I think a sponsor will enjoy being associated with the tournament we're trying to build... I hope we have more of a fight 'Who's gonna get it?' rather than, 'Oh, boy, who do we have to go find?' "
Step one is to land a big-bucks sponsor. Without that, there is no step two, and sponsorship has proved elusive so far. Meanwhile, the current tournament regime is seeking money to continue the event opposite the British Open, but at a much lower buy-in price. Two groups are working toward different ends.
There is cause for optimism, yes, but also reason for pessimism. "I might be Alice in Wonderland a little bit," Kelly said, "but we've got a heck of a rabbit hole going."
Kelly's enthusiasm has a whole state cheering for him. The question is, what's next for that rabbit hole? More rays of daylight or the first shovelful of dirt? Milwaukee's golfing history is at stake.