The biggest tournament of Jeff Sanders’ career is next week. Now he just has to hope his biggest draw shows up to play.
Tiger Woods, who hasn’t teed it up competitively since August 2015 when he tied for 10th at the Wyndham Championship, sent out a carefully worded press release last month saying he “hopes” to return to the PGA Tour at the Safeway Open, which kicks off the 2016-17 PGA Tour season next week at Silverado Resort and Spa in Napa, Calif.
The 40-year-old is on the list of players expected to be in the field and he’s touted front and center on the homepage of the Safeway website – “SEE TIGER” – but he is still not officially committed to play in the tournament. Woods has until 5 p.m. EST on Friday to enter.
“He’s planning to play in the tournament,” Sanders, the executive director of the Safeway Open, said in a phone interview Thursday morning. “As you see on the Golf Channel, they are advertising his return, and we are doing the same, and we are counting on him playing. … Everyone is moving forward as if he’s playing because that’s what we think is happening.”
Sanders said he’s had contact with Woods’ camp, including Woods’ business manager Mark Steinberg, but wouldn’t go into details. (Steinberg did not immediately return an e-mail from GOLF.com.)
Since Woods targeted the Safeway as his return, Sanders and his company, Lagardere Sports, which is running the first-time event, have had to ramp up their efforts to accommodate fans and media. Parking, shuttles, concessions and security have all been increased. They’ve also expanded the media center, as Sanders says he is expecting five times as many media members to attend compared to last year’s Frys.com Open (since renamed the Safeway after a sponsorship transition).
Despite the surge in demand for tickets after Woods announced his plans to play, the tournament actually lowered ticket prices from $40 for a one-day pass to $30.
“We believe in value,” Sanders said. “We don’t want anyone to say they can’t afford to come to the Safeway.”
According to Sanders, ticket sales have already doubled last year’s haul. (That’s counting only purchased tickets and not those that come included with hospitality or sponsorship packages.)
“And we still got another week between now and the first round,” Sanders said. “In the golf event business, you sell a lot of tickets in the last week and tickets for Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday for people who just plan to come out and buy a ticket at the gate. I wouldn’t be surprised if the ticket sales by the end of next Sunday are triple what last year’s ticket sales were.”
With or without Woods, Sanders is confident the tournament will be a hit. Phil Mickelson is playing. It’s in wine country. There will be world-renowned chefs, live music and great golf.
When asked about the possibility of Woods not playing, Sanders remained upbeat.
“We just don’t think that way. We are all very positive,” Sanders said. “Let’s just hope by tomorrow at 5 it’s official.”