Jay Allen remembers the uncertainty of the LPGA’s survival in northwest Arkansas.
The LPGA started modestly and ended nearly drowned in torrential rain in September 2007. The inaugural Northwest Arkansas Championship never finished as 6 inches of rain canceled the tournament before some of the golfers could even finish their first 18 holes at Pinnacle Country Club.
“I was worried we were going to be one-and-done,” said Allen, the tournament chairman.
U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., was mayor of Rogers when the quest to get an LPGA event started in earnest. There were a couple of failed attempts as the combination of date-location-money couldn’t be resolved and then, after getting a three-year commitment from the LPGA, the first event was a washout.
“We just couldn’t pull it off the first couple of years,” Womack said. “Then the monsoon happened. There were some concerns whether the deck was just stacked against us.”
Look at the tournament now. The ninth edition — now officially the Wal-Mart NW Arkansas Championship Presented by P&G — was won by Na Yeon Choi on June 28 in front of large crowds, most of whom were rooting for former University of Arkansas star Stacy Lewis, who finished in a tie for third.
Allen said sponsors rallied and kept the tournament afloat. The first tournament was sponsored by John Q. Hammons before P&G took over as title sponsor for the next three years.
Wal-Mart became title sponsor — with P&G the presenting sponsor — in 2011. Along the way, the tournament’s purse increased from $1.2 million to $2 million, which is one of the best purses in a non-major competition.
“It has grown significantly in just about any measure, any way you want to talk about,” Allen said. “We’ve talked before about doing an economic impact study, but it’s really more about quality of life. It’s really for the people of northwest Arkansas and, that’s why Wal-Mart and the sponsors support it.
“The spirit of the conversation [with Wal-Mart] was this event is in the headquarters’ region and it was only appropriate that Wal-Mart should be the title sponsor of it. What it showed the rest of the community when Wal-Mart stepped in was that the event was going to be sustainable and was going to have the support to be here long term.”
Sporting Events Targeted
Mike Malone of the Northwest Arkansas Council said his organization did a strategic assessment of the area 10 years ago and determined that one amenity that was missing was a large-scale sporting event. Since then, the area has seen the arrival of the LPGA and minor-league baseball with the Class AA Northwest Arkansas Naturals in Springdale.
“It helps us as an emerging region that is a little less known than others,” Malone said. “It helps get the northwest Arkansas brand out. It’s all kind of great exposure. The LPGA tournament definitely helped address that concern raised 10 years ago.”
One of the most ardent supporters of the LPGA tour event was Womack, whom Allen said should be considered one of the founders of the tournament. Womack, a frequent visitor to Pinnacle Country Club during the tournament the past nine years, said many people are responsible for the tournament’s success.
“There was a concentrated effort to elevate Rogers-Bentonville in a pretty special way,” Womack said. “This is one of many things that have happened here to put this area on the map. One of the keys to get people to move to the area was give them the kinds of things they’ve come to expect in the areas they were moving from. This [tournament] gives us an opportunity to add another dimension to our portfolio.”
Michelle Gloeckler, an executive vice president for Wal-Mart in the consumables and health and wellness divisions, said the tournament is a great event for northwest Arkansas but also adds value because of the peripheral events attached to it. As examples, Gloeckler pointed out the Pantene Beautiful Links event, where women cut their hair to donate for wigs for cancer patients, and a conference of women business executives that is held at the Hammons Center annually.
“While the LPGA event is great, and it’s a weeklong event, there are so many other things that go on during the week that add to the community,” Gloeckler said. “I completely agree with the point of view that northwest Arkansas having a professional event like that makes a difference in our community.”
Allen, who was a senior vice president at Wal-Mart for 10 years, said the LPGA is an important part of the community fabric regardless of how many tickets are sold. Allen said that when he was recruiting people to work in northwest Arkansas before he retired in 2005, getting people to come to the area was a hard sell.
Great job, Jay, they would say, but what is there for my family to do?
“When companies are recruiting people to come here, I’ve experienced it myself, many of them who have never been here before are significantly impressed by northwest Arkansas,” Allen said. “It’s not just one thing. When you drive through Pinnacle and tell them there’s an LPGA event that has been there for nine years, it impresses them whether they care about golf or not.”
Gloeckler said she moved to the area six-plus years ago to take the job at Wal-Mart. It was the best decision her family has ever made, she said. Strengthening the community is a critical part of Wal-Mart’s support of the LPGA, Gloeckler said.
“This is where our associates live, work and play,” Gloecker said. “This is our home, and we have a vested interest in bringing fantastic events like this to our community. The LPGA is one of them. It’s an event, but it’s a culmination of all those things that make this a fantastic place to work.
“This is important when you’re recruiting folks. You need a vibrant place for people to make their home.”
Gloeckler said she and her family take advantage of all the amenities in the area and then rattled off examples such as restaurants, Beaver Lake, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and the Walmart AMP.
Malone said he attends the LPGA every year so his two daughters can see strong, successful female athletes in action.
Allen said that when he moved to the area in 1995, it was a nice place to raise a family, but, other than University of Arkansas sports, there wasn’t a whole lot to do in the area.
“There’s a great deal of pride that there’s an LPGA event here,” Allen said. “Many of our sponsors have talked to me about how important this tournament is. The explosion, it’s hard to find the word for how much the quality of life has improved here. It’s not an incremental improvement. It’s a quality of life movement.”