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Knoxville Open future in jeopardy
Food City drops tournament, local officials seek $800k in sponsorships

After 20 years of thrills and too many recent economic spills, the PGA Tour has taken over ownership of the Nationwide Tour event at Fox Den Country Club.

It appears the Knoxville Open has fallen by the wayside and "The Energy Classic" could be born within the next couple of weeks.

Local officials are trying to secure $800,000 in sponsorship -- mostly from energy related companies in the Tennessee Valley -- and move forward without long-time title sponsor Food City and minus the tournament director the past three years.

It is believed that at least 15 to 20 companies have been contacted, including Tennessee Valley Authority, Oak Ridge Nuclear Laboratory and Y-12 in Oak Ridge, among others.

Conversations with a tournament group called Knox Golf Charities have been described as "very positive" and at least two main sponsors might have been secured. The next important meeting is scheduled Feb. 16.

If a deal is not in place or at least in the works by the end of the month, the tournament scheduled for June 10-13 could be cancelled. However, a tournament source is optimistic the 2010 event will be played.

In an extraordinary vote of confidence, Nationwide Tour commissioner Bill Calfee is standing by the Knoxville tournament -- and assuming the financial risk -- while waiting to see how things play out.

"This is a super strong sign of our commitment to have the 2010 tournament," Calfee said. "We are revamping the event and reorganizing the event as we look to the future with a group that has a lot to gain from this involvement for many years."

Calfee handpicked Patrick Nichol to replace Matt Wright as tournament director. Nichol was part of the Nationwide Tour traveling staff and has been to the Farragut based tournament before.

Wright was asked to resign last September after giving misleading or inaccurate information about his attempts to find new sponsors in the energy community, Calfee said.

"The tournament director was let go," Calfee said. "We had to move on.

"We thought these people had been contacted and talked to and there would be follow-up conversations. Unfortunately, by the time we found out that wasn't happening, it was too late."

Because the tournament is still four months away, there's time to make sweeping changes and save the event. There does not appear to be an official deadline, but the sponsorship dollars must be secured before early spring.

"Unfortunately, there is a time frame to pull the trigger and get something in place," Calfee said. "We could skip a year, but obviously we don't want to do that. Knoxville has always been a very important part of this tour and we want to continue that for many years in the future. Knoxville has good crowds and a good group running the event. It has been a great relationship."

Regardless of what happens, it is the end of an era for the Knoxville Open. Like so many other sports and entertainment events, the popular tournament has fallen prey to the economic downturn and recession.

After raising nearly $1 million the past two decades, mostly for the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Greater Tennessee Valley, the tournament was unable to donate any money last year.

The outlook for this year became even more bleak when Food City pulled out of the event, which was a $275,000 hit. The regional grocery store chain based in Abington, Va., has been a loyal tournament partner for about 15 years.

The 2010 tournament was in serious jeopardy until Calfee and the PGA Tour stepped in and started calling more of the shots.

Tournament representatives have pinned their hopes on a totally new approach: a coalition of energy related companies.

"Going green on the greens" could be one obvious slogan.

The concept features solar powered golf carts for tournament officials, solar powered sky boxes, the opportunity to provide educational materials about recycling and the importance of environmentally safe products.

Chuck Cavalaris is a long-time Knoxville golf writer. He can be reached at 865-692-6950.


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