Nationwide event starts off on right foot

DANIEL ISLAND - One by one, players in the Nationwide Tour Championship walked into the media interview area to discuss their rounds and their dreams of playing on the 2010 PGA Tour.

Each player's quest to finish among the top 25 money winners, assuring a spot on the "big tour," was Topic A. But for most of the week, Topic B was competitors' delight with the Ralston Creek course and the host venue's amenities.

Australia's Michael Sim, who led the Nationwide Tour with three victories, dubbed the course's greens and the weather "perfect," the Daniel Island clubhouse "phenomenal," and the Rees Jones-designed layout "challenging."

"This is a great venue for the Tour Championship," Sim said. "It doesn't get any better."

Sim was not alone, either.

"This is as good as I've played," said Kevin Johnson, a former Clemson All-American who finished 13th on the money list and will play on the big tour next season. "Here, they treat us like we're special: the courtesy cars are BMWs, the facilities, the clubhouse, that locker room ... it's like a nice (PGA) Tour event. I don't know what I was expecting, but they've done everything."

With at least three more big events scheduled for the Charleston area through the 2012 PGA Championship, tournament chairman Kevin Canning termed the tournament "an absolute home run. We went in with the attitude of making it a special event for the players, and it all came back to us in a positive way."

The four-day attendance total of 9,000-10,000 was above average for the Nationwide Tour, and "especially battling college football, we think the response was really good," said Canning, whose Goal Marketing ran the tournament for Charleston Tennis, LLC, which manages the Family Circle Cup.

Nationwide Tour president Bill Calfee added his own stamp of approval. "The club is fabulous, the market and the timing are right, all those things," he said. "We've had a great experience (at Daniel Island). It's very upscale, absolutely gorgeous."

And that locker room, with its luxurious facilities and site of players' between-rounds meals? Said Calfee with a laugh, "I might have to move to Charleston and join the club."

That, Canning said, is good news for South Carolina, whose ongoing PGA Tour presence, the Hilton Head Island-based Heritage, will lose sponsor Verizon Wireless after its 2010 tournament.

The PGA Tour is working hard to find a replacement sponsor for an event that dates to 1969, but the economy is causing nervous moments for Sea Pines Resort officials.

Last week in Charleston, though, it was all sunshine and smiles.

The area's first Nationwide Tour Championship, with its $1 million purse (the tour provides $400,000, with Daniel Island and its presenting sponsor, the Student Transportation of America (STA) Education Foundation, on the hook for the rest) plus a budget of $1 million, will finish in the black, Calfee said.

"That's fantastic for a late start and tough economy," he said. "The first year is always the toughest, but our feedback has been tremendous."

This year's event was the start of a three-year stay at Daniel Island for the tournament.

When the Nationwide Tour decided to move its year-ending championship out of Alabama, Daniel Island Club president Matt Sloan approached the Tour and suggested a return to where the 2006 PalmettoPride Classic was held.

Calfee said the situation was ideal. With the 7,446-yard Ralston Creek course plus all the plush surroundings, the week offered top-25 players a taste of what to expect next year.

"That's what we're doing, getting them ready for the PGA Tour," he said. "We try to run this like a regular PGA Tour event, all the things inside and out. These players have matured and now are ready to play at that level."

To assure that level of experience, Canning went for PGA Tour-style trappings, including sky boxes, standard bearers with each pairing and a small army of volunteers.

"We (also) needed a host organization that had leverage to create sponsorships, and STA had that," he said. "They could go to vendors and say, 'Come to our charity event,' and companies not normally involved in golf got involved."

A major financial boost came from the event's two pro-am events, which Canning said sold 53 teams at $10,000 each. Nearly half (24) were bought by Nationwide Insurance, and Calfee said the tour's No. 1 sponsor brought in several hundred top producers and customers for the week.

As a result, Calfee said he could see a long future at Daniel Island.

"We're into long-term relationships," he said. "We just signed a three-year extension (with the Nationwide Tour's BMW event in Greenville), and we'd love to stay here a few years. The (Charleston) area supports golf."

For confirmation of that claim ... well, ask the Nationwide Tour players. Canning did.

"(Veteran) Skip Kendall said this was the best Nationwide Tour Championship ever," he said. "So we know we're doing something right."