September 17, 2014

Aces High

The heat could melt the chrome off a golf cart, and the humidity is enough to suffocate anybody brave enough to ride one. It is July, the dead of an oppressive Florida summer, and Bob Burris should be on a beach someplace, soaking in the sunshine, a spray mist keeping him cool.

Almost anyone who knows what Burris does for a living figures that's where he is, anyway.

Burris is the executive director of the ACE Group Classic, Naples' Champions Tour event, which will celebrate its 17th year when the 50-and-older tour of senior golfers returns to Southwest Florida in February for the annual golf tournament.

You could hardly blame Burris if he were working on his own golf game right now, or thinking of anything but the senior event. In fact, many are amazed to learn that he is actually working at this time of year.

You mean, Bob, this is a full-time job?

Burris can only shake his head.

"It happens every day," says Burris, 53, who has run the event since 1998. "They simply don't know what goes into it. What they don't know is that in July we're working 80-hour weeks. During Christmas, when everybody else is enjoying the holidays, we're working every day. And I'm very secure in knowing that it's easily an 11-month job. You need a month to have a nervous breakdown and recuperate."

Yes, Burris is hard at work now, securing sponsorships, lining up corporate hospitality, figuring out a million little things you'd never think about when it comes to putting on a golf tournament.

In its long life, the event has moved to six different golf courses in the Naples area and been known by names such as the Aetna Challenge, Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate Challenge, InTellinet Challenge and LG Championship. For the third straight year, it will be played at TwinEagles, a course designed by golf legend Jack Nicklaus and his son, Jackie.

"I'm a golf professional by trade, so I really thought that I had some understanding of what went into it," says Ed Rodgers, vice president of amenities for the Bonita Bay Group, which owns TwinEagles and has developed several other golf course communities in Southwest Florida. "Then I realized how much I didn't know about what went on behind the scenes. There is so much that goes into running a successful golf event that no one ever sees. For the most part, as long as nothing is out of place, you don't notice. That's the success Bob has brought to the tournament. They know how many millions of little things need to be accomplished. And they do it."

In February, Argentina's Vincente Fernandez holed a 60-foot birdie putt on the final green before a huge crowd of cheering fans, locking up his fifth Champions Tour title. And it was another in a long line of successive Champions Tour events in Naples that have produced a who's who of golf's greats as winners.

Gary Player, the South African who has traveled the world in pursuit of golf trophies, earned one at the first Naples event in 1988 and has never missed the tournament since. Lee Trevino won the tournament twice, as has Hale Irwin, who both years (1997 and 2002) went on to capture the Champions Tour money title. Mike Hill and Gil Morgan are other two-time winners of the tournament. Typically, the tournament attracts all of the stars from what used to be called the Senior PGA Tour because it has an attractive date on the schedule.

The ACE Group Classic usually follows one in Key Biscayne and precedes one in Tampa. It is part of a Florida swing of Champions Tour events that draws some of the best crowds, making it even more popular with the players.

To make it happen, the event has some 1,000 people who serve as volunteers for the week. Some work as marshals on the course, others run concessions, help players, drive shuttles or work parking lots. A good number never see a golf shot the entire week.

Burris cannot thank his volunteers enough.

"I've always said the Harvard School of Business should do a study on this," he says. "Here I am, a guy with not much smarts, telling 1,000 wealthy people what to do, and they do it. But they are so bright and savvy.. They are country-club members for the most part and deeply care about this event.. I hope they think it's one of the places where the volunteer is king."

Mike O'Keefe, a tournament volunteer for 13 years, is now general chairman of volunteers. For O'Keefe, 68, it's a labor of love. The real estate agent and Lipton retiree coordinates numerous committees of volunteers.

Each one works a minimum of three days at the tournament and is allowed to watch the event when not working. The days are long and there is no pay for the volunteers. They do get a free lunch and the opportunity to play some discounted golf at TwinEagles. But that's not the reason they do it.

"I think the vast majority of the people are this way: We are not here to applaud the golfers," O'Keefe says. "The reason we're here is because of the charities. For the past five years it's been the YMCA Collier County and now also the Collier Education Foundation. This year, there was $150,000 being divided."

This year, they were buoyed by the appearance of Nicklaus, who often plays events at courses he designed. TwinEagles has proved to be an excellent place for a tournament of this caliber. Most golf courses are not designed with tournaments in mind. They are built for everyday golfers, and don't have space to host such a big event.

But TwinEagles appears to have both-a stern test for the best 50-and-older players, and plenty of room to bring in spectators.

The Golden Bear had hoped to play in the 2002 event, but a troublesome back injury limited him to just three tournaments all year. So Nicklaus made his Naples debut this year to much fanfare, and although he had limited success, nobody seemed to mind. Nicklaus hinted that he'd be back in 2004.

Within hours of the tournament's conclusion, the rest of the senior players were packed up and headed to the next event in Tampa. Burris-who works for Octagon Sports (which manages and runs several golf tournaments)-and his staff were tearing down their tournament, putting things away, figuring out how much money they'll be donating to charity.

Each tournament on the Champions Tour is set up as a nonprofit organization. Money beyond expenses goes to charity. This, ultimately, is how Burris is judged.

With a budget of some $3 million-$1.6 million of which is earmarked for the players' purse-we're talking big business.

Burris has more than 100 speaking engagements a year. lot He has to. "What takes the most time is selling the event," he says. "Selling pro-am spots. Selling corporate packages. Group sales tickets."

ACE Group, title sponsor for the sixth year in 2004, is on the hook for approximately $2 million. That covers the purse. ACE is also required to buy a certain amount of television advertising time. The company also spends a healthy amount entertaining executives and corporate clients.

"It's been estimated that the golf tournament means $20 million to the local economy," Burris says. "And that doesn't count the national and international exposure we receive on the Golf Channel. ACE brings in 550 people, buys every room at The Ritz-Carlton, Naples. There are 81 players, 81 caddies, sometimes with significant others. All the equipment people, vendors, media. Add it all together. I think it's the biggest event in town. It's certainly the one that's the most supported by the public."

Still, it requires an enormous amount of effort by Burris-the only full-time, year-round staffer that Octagon employs for the tournament. ACE's commitment is only part of the equation; much more money needs to be raised in order for Burris to run the event and have some left over for charity.

That's where the selling comes in. And a huge aspect of that is getting people to buy $3,000 pro-am spots.

"We have two days of pro-ams on the Champions Tour," Burris says of the event that precedes the 54-hole tournament, where the professionals are paired with amateurs. "There are 224 playing spots per day, which means 448 total. Those people are coming from all over the world, and you have to get handicaps from each one, shirt sizes and shoe sizes. It is truly the most profitable area of the golf tournament, but also the most labor intensive."

How big is the pro-am? On the Tuesday night before the two-day event, Burris spent $150,000 on the draw party. That's where amateurs get to pick the pro with whom they want to play. He spent another $100,000 in gifts that are part of the pro-am package. You don't think all those golfers expect to just play golf for $3,000? They get a pretty impressive gift package as well. "If you're doing your job properly, most people renew," Burris says. "What I have found is that you can never give a golfer enough wedges, putters or drivers. You can give an Odyssey putter this year and a Ping putter next year and that's still okay."

Beyond corporate sales, luxury tents and the pro-am, it comes down to selling tickets to the public. "For most tournaments, ticket sales are only eight to 10 percent of total revenue," Burris says. "But in Naples, we need it to be larger because we don't have the big corporations down here. I don't have the corporate support. It's not anybody's fault, it's just not there. The big business in Naples is banking, and most of the banks do spend money with us. I need good weather. I need good advance sales, which is why we do a pretty good job of packaging."

Burris has put together an attractive program for local golf enthusiasts. For $90, a fan can get a weekly badge to the tournament, plus 20 rounds of golf (excluding cart fee) at Bonita Bay golf course properties. The golf is only good in the summer months, but that's still quite a deal.

"In essence, for $90, you've bought a couple of thousand dollars of golf, and also get to come to the tournament," Burris says. "It's helped us a lot."

And it helps expose the Bonita Bay properties. That's why the Bonita Bay Group is part of the tournament. The event helps sell its golf-course community to the public. "There are the intangibles that it brings," Rodgers says. "I think the pride that the membership feels in the club when 80,000 people rave about it, the press writes great things about it, the players say great things. ... And then they see it on TV. There is a tremendous pride factor. Is it inconvenient for the membership? Sure, but for the most part, that is offset by the fact that it's their club and they are very proud of it. They love the idea of the best players in the world enjoying it."

That is another big part of Burris' job-securing the location. The tournament has jumped from home to home over the years, and it's not easy finding a suitable course that can handle the crowds, and accommodate sponsors, yet be a championship-caliber course.

Fortunately, Burris is no stranger to sports marketing. He got his start as a 16-year-old sweeping the aisles of Mile High Stadium in Denver. At night, he ran the scoreboard for pro baseball games. He worked his way through college at Colorado State University by selling tickets and managing the box office for the Denver Broncos. At age 24, he was named the first ticket manager of the Seattle Kingdome.

Later, after 10 years as business manager of the Denver Bears, a minor-league baseball team, Burris became vice president of marketing and corporate sponsorships for the Denver Nuggets basketball team. In his first year with the Nuggets, Burris' department sold $2.3 million of corporate sponsorships, a 42-percent increase over the previous year and the highest in the franchise's history.

That got the attention of the International, a PGA Tour event. And that's how Burris got into the golf business. In 1989, he became director of sales and marketing for the LPGA Tour, selling the women's game to corporate America. Later he started the American Express International golf tournament in Sarasota for Advantage International, a sports marketing company. In 1998, Advantage acquired the Naples tournament and made Burris its executive director.

"I think my minor-league baseball background, where you have no stars to sell, has been a tremendous advantage," Burris says. "You have to be creative, sell the sizzle instead of the steak. I was doing 70 promotions a year, almost one every night. Building the world's largest banana split to bringing out the famous chicken to having a musical double header with the Beach Boys. Many of those can be applied to golf."

In fact, Burris needs to get working on one of those deals right now. The tournament will be here soon.

Bob Harig covers golf for the St. Petersburg Times and ESPN.com.

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