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Nearly 40 sponsors keep GHO afloat

Phil Mickelson has won the last two Greater Hartford Opens, but almost didn't have a title to defend this week.

When Canon pulled out after 18 years as the title sponsor, tournament officials had to pass the corporate hat.

Their call for help was answered in November by nearly 40 sponsors who wrote checks totaling $4 million, just enough to break even and buy the tournament one more year until -- or if -- a title sponsor is found.

Mickelson, the only two-time defending champ in the 52-year history of the tournament, was among the first players to commit.

``I committed early in an effort to show support for the event,'' he said. ``I really appreciate the fact that the entire community is going way out of their way to keep this tournament. I love this tournament.''

For Mickelson, the walk up the 18th hole at the TPC at River Highlands is inspiring. The natural amphitheater effect gives the tournament a feel like few others, he said.

The GHO has some of the largest galleries on Tour, drawing nearly 100,000 for the final round.

``The community supports this tournament so well that as a player, when you walk up and see those hills lined with people, it's a very heartwarming feeling,'' Mickelson said.

The GHO is one of seven tournaments on the PGA Tour without a title sponsor at a time when the economy isn't in the best of shape.

``This is just a backup plan,'' tournament Director Dan Baker said of the bridge sponsorships. ``When we first started talking about the bridge plan, the economy was just in horrible shape. I think there was a lot of nervous twitches.''

The GHO has been through several incarnations. Once known as the Insurance City Open, it later gained greater popularity when entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. lent his name to the tournament. His celebrity pro-ams drew entertainers such as Bob Hope and Jackie Gleason.

The tournament pumps about $20 million into the local economy for that one summer week. It's also the sole fund-raiser for the Greater Hartford Jaycees, which has donated about $24 million to charitable causes over the past 52 years, according to 2003 GHO chairwoman and Jaycees member Cindy Demma.

``It has been a tremendous accomplishment of the Jaycees to gather 37 bridge sponsors to save this tournament,'' Demma said. ``The majority of these corporations had no problems taking out their checkbooks. They knew we were in dire straits.''

The Hartford law firm of Robinson & Cole was among those who chipped in. Managing partner Eric Daniels said the company donated a ``significant'' amount.

The decision wasn't a hard one for the 160-year-old firm. The partners had seen major sports heartbreaks in the state, beginning with the exodus of the NHL Hartford Whalers, the about-face of the New England Patriots and demise of the ABL New England Blizzard.

``This is one of the last major sporting events in the area,'' Daniels said. ``We came to appreciate that its survival was in real question.''

Gov. John G. Rowland, who has taken an active role in keeping or bringing major sporting events to the state, said he expects the corporate community has gone as far as it can.

``We'd be hard-pressed to rely on the smaller companies for another year,'' Rowland said.

Organizers have two options, he said: They can find a single sponsor, or find two sponsors to split the costs as television and title sponsors.

Among those playing at this week's tournament will be Suzy Whaley, a teaching pro at Blue Fox Run in Avon. She qualified by winning the Connecticut PGA Sectional last fall.

There's been increased media interest in the tournament because of Whaley, and officials are marketing her out front to draw more fans. Until the interim sponsors were secured, Whaley wasn't sure if she'd get the opportunity to tee off in a PGA Tour event.

``It's such an unbelievable event in New England,'' said Whaley, whose husband Bill is the general manager at the TPC. ``I just knew something would work.''

A title sponsor has been elusive, but the hunt continues, Baker said.

``It never ends,'' Baker said. ``We're out there.''

 

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