Free doesn't mean full at Champions Tour major

POTOMAC — The Constellation Energy Senior Players Championship left the historic Five Farms course at Baltimore Country Club quietly last fall for a one-year stay in the Washington suburbs. As with the tournament itself during the last of its three years in Timonium, not many noticed.

It seems fewer are aware of the event's arrival this week at the newly-renovated TPC Potomac at Avenel Farm. Or that admission is free, making it one of a handful of events on the Champions Tour that is trying to attract fans by not charging for one or more of the rounds.

Considering how scarce the crowd was following him around during Thursday's opening round, Hall of Famer Tom Watson wondered if fans even knew they could get in without paying.

"It didn't seem to work that well today," Watson said.

For the most part, cheering fans were replaced by chirping birds. Those looking to soak up the atmosphere of a big-time tournament found themselves happy to soak up the sun. For a tournament sponsored by the country's largest supplier of electricity, there was none.

Watson and others say that it might not be fair to judge until the weekend how effective a marketing strategy it is to allow fans in for free. Given the competition this tournament could have Sunday from the Redskins, as it did from the Ravens in previous years, free admission might not be enough.

"This time of year people are not thinking about golf. They're thinking about golf in April when the Masters comes around," Watson said. "They're shutting it down now. I always shut it down after the first of September … You can't have the ideal date for every tournament."

Said Mark O'Meara, "It's not like we draw huge crowds because there's so much golf being played. So any way we can make the game a little more accessible to everyone, we'd like to do it."

Steve Schoenfeld, the tournament's executive director, said that the concept of having local companies sponsor a particular round rather than charge admission has worked well at other Champions Tour events in the past, and figured that doing it for the Champions Tour's first look at the redone former PGA Tour stop made sense.

"We thought it was very important to spread the reach of the championship," Schoenfeld said of a tournament that is scheduled to return to Baltimore next year for the final year of its contract. "We want to expose as many people as we could."

Champions Tour president Mike Stevens said that the free admission policy is typically geared to "getting spectators we normally wouldn't get" and much of the revenue that ultimately is donated to charity comes from parking and concessions rather than ticket sales

"I don't have a problem with free ticket programs so long as they are marketed effecitvely and have specific goals and objectives," Stevens said. "I think you'll see the success of the program as we get though the week."

Several fans who attended Thursday's round said that the free admission got their attention, but others were unaware until Wednesday that a tournament was taking place.

"I saw the ad and that was the hook," said Jack Armstrong, who drove down from Maine on his way to his winter home in North Carolina. "I have a sister-in-law that lives 20 minutes away and I said, 'I've got to look into this. I came out yesterday (for the pro-am) and there was virtually nobody here.'"

Dan Murray, who came over from Olney for the opening round, seemed surprised.

"There was a pro-am?" said Murray. "First we've heard of it."

Schoenfeld attributed the lack of pre-tournanment advertising, and buzz to the fact that Champions Tour events have a limited budget compared to regular PGA Tour events.

"We tried to do the best we could and strategize to have that reach be as wide as it could be," Schoenfeld said.

Hall of Famer Tom Kite, who leads the tournament after an opening round of 3-under par 67, said that there's a risk of having a free tournament that few attend.

"There's no question there is that potential downside. There are some people who say, 'If they're giving tickets away, it can't be worth much,' " Kite said. "On the other hand, you have to do the other stuff to try to attract people. It's a bit of a double-edged sword, and you have to be careful with it."