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Las Vegas event searching for new sponsor

Charlie Baron said he had a good laugh when he read of an attempt by a Chicago-based group to purchase the Montreal Expos from Major League Baseball and move the franchise to Las Vegas.

Baron, the tournament manager of the PGA Tour's Las Vegas Invitational, has been around the Las Vegas sports scene for almost 20 years. And if he has seen a city that is not ready to embrace a major league franchise, it's Las Vegas.

"There is no way -- no way -- that will happen," Baron said. "I can't believe anyone who has been around sports here would honestly believe it would work here."

But Baron has his own problems to worry about. This year's LVI, which will take place from Oct. 8 to 12 at the Tournament Players Club at Summerlin, TPC at the Canyons and Southern Highlands, could be the last one.

The Las Vegas Founders, the charitable group that runs the tournament, has been actively talking to potential sponsors for months. But given the tournament's place on the schedule, when it competes directly with the NFL, college football and the baseball playoffs, few companies are interested.

Baron admitted it would be a lot easier if Tiger Woods were a regular in Las Vegas. But Woods hasn't played here since returning in 1997 to defend his championship, though he is often in town practicing during the tournament.

The event annually gets a strong field, and Baron said he expects at least 16 of the top 30 money-winners to compete in Las Vegas. Also, European Ryder Cup team members Darren Clarke and Phillip Price are planning to compete.

But the crowds in Las Vegas have been poor, save for the throngs that flocked to Summerlin to see Woods in 1996 and 1997, and that doesn't make a sponsor eager to sign on. Baron, always an optimistic sort, admitted he's getting concerned.

"It's a bit unsettling, no question about it," he said. "We're talking to a lot of people. We've put the menu on the table, but no one has given us an order yet. What does that mean for our future? Good question. We'll have to sweat it out if we don't have something done by Nov. 1.

"I would have thought we would have had something done by now. A while back, I would have told you it was the economy that was hurting us, but it's different now. We have to find the sponsor that is the right fit, and we haven't done that yet."

The Founders are putting up the purse this year after Invensys pulled out after its three-year contract as the title sponsor expired after the 2002 tournament.

Baron said the Founders are considering all options, including abandoning the three-course, pro-am format that has marked the tournament since its inception in 1983. But he said he's not sure that eliminating the amateurs, going from three courses to one and from 90 holes to 72 holes would significantly improve the field.

"I don't think our format is scaring the top players because name me one guy who is considered an elite player now who hasn't been here?" Baron said. "It maybe affects us with perhaps a half a dozen players, maybe less. But I guess everyone is worried about one."

Woods is known to hate the pro-am format, and that is thought to be a big reason why he annually skips Las Vegas. But Baron said he remains hopeful that Woods will play.

"We'll have a good field with or without Tiger," Baron said. "Obviously, we would love to have him, but we will not have to apologize to anyone for the quality of our field. The problem is, we just don't have the support of the community. The people have to realize that we need their support. It's getting to be put-up-or-shut-up time. The community has to show it wants this golf tournament to be here."

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