Grant Lucas

All signs pointed to a major championship’s long stay at Crosswater Club in Sunriver: the quality of the course, Central Oregon as a destination, the region’s flourishing golf culture. In a 2007 interview with The Bulletin, Mike Lee, then the Jeld-Wen Tradition tournament director, cited those characteristics, adding that “we feel you have a recipe for success. If our suspicions and our projections are correct, I don’t see why we wouldn’t absolutely look to stay (at Crosswater) beyond 2010.”

Lee, though, could not have forecast the sharp recession that hit the country soon after that interview. He could not have foreseen the repercussions that the economic downturn would have with The Tradition, one of five major championships on the PGA’s 50-and-older Champions Tour (now known as PGA Tour Champions). Ten years after Lee’s comments about the high-profile tournament potentially thriving in Central Oregon, it has twice been relocated — from Sunriver to Shoal Creek, Alabama, in 2011, when it became known as the Regions Tradition, and to Hoover, Alabama, starting in 2016.

A decade after Sunriver welcomed its first such star-studded tournament, some locals are still wondering what could have been. What if Jeld-Wen, the windows and doors manufacturing corporation then based in Klamath Falls, continued to sponsor The Tradition rather than opting not to renew its contract shortly before the tournament’s last stand at Crosswater in 2010? Would the championship still be taking place each summer in Sunriver?

Those hypotheticals are countered with what The Tradition accomplished in its four years on Oregon’s High Desert: a boon for the local economy, heightened national exposure for a once-hidden gem, and, according to Josh Willis, the director of golf at Sunriver, a lasting influence on Central Oregon.

“There is no doubt in my mind,” says Willis, who was the head pro at Crosswater when The Tradition arrived in 2007, “that highlighting Crosswater, Sunriver Resort and Central Oregon — and everything that makes this place so special and the reasons we choose to live here — that the exposure that was created from the Jeld-Wen Tradition absolutely helped expedite the growth of Central Oregon.”

Crosswater had hosted its share of large-scale tournaments before 2007 — such as the NCAA Division I men’s golf championships and the PGA Professional Championship. Those tourneys, however, paled in comparison with The Tradition, an August tournament that was broadcast live on NBC and Golf Channel. Central Oregon was largely an untested market for professional golf.

A University of Oregon study in 2004, when the tournament was held for the second of four consecutive years at The Reserve Vineyards near Portland, estimated that The Tradition, an event previously won by the likes of golf legends Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino, would generate between $7 million and $9 million for the local economy. And it was expected by tournament organizers that the championship’s relocation to Crosswater starting in 2007 would provide a similar boost in Central Oregon — and not just economically.

“Most of it was about marketing and exposure of golf in Central Oregon,” recalls Tom Luersen, then ­Sunriver Resort’s vice president and managing director. “The event was subsidized by some tourism dollars to host the event. Because it was televised nationally and replayed many times, it was more of a marketing event than it was more of an economic impact. The second point was that it contributed to a lot of charity dollars (going) to multiple organizations, which was part of the initial goal of the Jeld-Wen Foundation. … It was, and became, an economic positive to Sunriver Resort and the community.”

Big exposure for Central Oregon

Central Oregon, let alone Sunriver, was a mystery to many of the Champions Tour players — and even to The Bulletin’s golf writer at the time.

“I was a golf guy, so I knew what The Tradition was and what it meant,” says Zack Hall, who covered each of the four Tradition tournaments in Sunriver and chose in 2007 to move from Reno, ­Nevada, to work at The Bulletin, he says, specifically because The Tradition was coming to Central Oregon. “It was a major on the Champions Tour. I didn’t really know what Sunriver was back then, but I knew (the tournament) moved to a new place.”

Following the 2006 announcement of The ­Tradition’s move to Sunriver, a buzz began throughout the region. Excitement grew for the major championship, which featured a $2.6 million purse and players such as eight-time PGA Tour major champion Tom Watson, former U.S. Open winners Tom Kite and Fuzzy Zoeller, and Oregon native Peter Jacobsen, whose company, Peter Jacobsen Sports, managed The Tradition. In turn, Central Oregon would be televised nationally in all of its splendor.

“The anticipation went all the way through to the membership of Crosswater, the resort staff and the entire community,” Willis remembers, “because this was really going to be the first time that we actually welcomed the PGA Tour to Central Oregon.”

The first Crosswater-based Tradition featured a field that Lee, the tournament director at the time, dubbed “probably our strongest field ever” since the championship moved from Arizona to Oregon in 2003. Mark McNulty won the 2007 Tradition by five strokes, and while there was little drama, Hall, who now works in public relations in Bend, remembers a key moment that made him realize the significance of this championship and its fit with the majesty of Central Oregon.

“The crowds were kind of light the first couple of days,” Hall says. “But on the last day, the final round, Mark McNulty is coming up (No.) 18, and a crowd had kind of gathered. There’s a few thousand people there, and it’s sort of a big deal. And there’s boats floating down the river (the Little Deschutes) with Mount Bachelor in the background. You just know that it’s going across national TV. It’s like, ‘This is why this is cool. There’s nothing like this in pro golf. No setting like that.’”

Though the tournament did not release official numbers, attendance for the 2007 tournament was estimated at more than 30,000 over its four-day run, exceeding the estimated 25,000 to 27,000 spectators who attended the final Tradition staged in the Portland area in 2006. Attendance appeared to improve, according to Bulletin accounts, in each of the final three years the tourney was staged in Sunriver, but, largely because of the recession, sponsors were reluctant to get involved.

“The people that were here certainly volunteered and liked the fact that it was coming here,” says Andy Heinly, who was a promotions coordinator for The Tradition beginning in 2009 and now co-owns a golf equipment shop in Bend. “Bend itself, it was an interesting sell when I was trying to promote it and sell it. They kind of saw it as a Sunriver event. I had a really hard time trying to get people and businesses in Bend (to realize) that Sunriver is not that far away, and a lot of these (players and visitors) are going to come up here and eat at your restaurants and visit downtown Bend and get out of Sunriver. It was a tough one.”

End of a brief era

All other indications after the first Tradition in ­Sunriver, however, pointed to the championship remaining in Central Oregon beyond 2010, when the original contract was set to expire. In a 2007 interview with The Bulletin, Golf Digest Publications regional sales director Noel Lucky, based in Southern California, said that even the first day of the first Tradition in Sunriver provided “visual exposure to a national audience, many of whom associate the state of Oregon with rain. Instead, they see the beauty, vastness and mountains of the area. It may cause pause for those who may not have considered traveling there to put it on the map.”

In 2008, Fred Funk won The Tradition by three strokes, and Mike Reid took the ’09 title in a sudden-death playoff. But in August 2010, a week before Funk won his second Tradition championship at Crosswater, Jeld-Wen announced it would not renew its contract to remain the title sponsor of the tournament, leading many to believe the championship would be relocated.

Leading up to and immediately following the 2010 ­Tradition, players shared with The Bulletin their dismay that the championship could be moving away from Central Oregon.

Said Funk: “Even though it’s kind of hard to get to, once you are here, I love being here. It’s the uniqueness of where it is. The vistas, the view you have, the weather, it’s just spectacular.”

The player Funk defeated at The Tradition in 2008, Mike Goodes, observed: “It’s not the easiest place to get to, but that is some of the charm of it. You get here and it’s quiet and peaceful. You don’t hear trucks running by, you don’t hear planes. It’s such a relaxed feeling here.”

Players continued to praise the course and the area. Mike Wiebe, who played in three Tradition tournaments at Sunriver, told The Bulletin that many of the players were “bummed out. We’re going to miss playing here — this is a beautiful spot.”

A day after Funk captured his second Tradition title in three years in 2010 — when what was believed to be the largest crowd in the tournament’s four-year Central Oregon run attended the final round — the Champions Tour announced that the championship would be moving to Alabama. Mike Stevens, the Champions Tour president, told The Bulletin that the national economy’s decline was the downfall of The Tradition in Central ­Oregon. The move, he insisted, had nothing to do with the tournament’s management or the level of support from area communities. In fact, Stevens said, “if the opportunity were to present itself, we would be back in a heartbeat.”

“Jeld-Wen did a great job of being appreciative of all the volunteers and the community and explaining that it had moved on to a different venue. I think they were proactive in the communication to the community and to Sunriver Resort,” says Luersen, Sunriver’s former managing director who is now in hotel management in Denver. “We were all disappointed, because it was such a great event, and it did great things to bring the community together and recognizing Central Oregon as a great golf destination.”

Impact lives on

A Tradition-level event, of course, has yet to return to these parts. Central Oregon, though, still frequently hosts notable tournaments, such as the PGA Professional ­Championship held in Sunriver earlier this summer. Heinly recalls speaking a few years ago with Jacobsen, whose company had managed The Tradition during its years in Oregon. Heinly says they chatted about how it would be conceivable to stage a regular Champions Tour tournament rather than a major. The tourney would feature, as Heinly puts it, “a party atmosphere” without the higher stress of performing at a major championship.

“I think,” Heinly says today of that kind of tournament, “it would have flown longer if Jeld-Wen wanted to stay involved that long.”

The “what ifs” continue, but the lasting effects of hosting a major golf championship resonate in Central Oregon.

Companies and establishments that were hired to serve the tourney, such as those that catered hospitality tents, gained more business and exposure, according to Willis, the Sunriver director of golf. Willis is also steadfast in his belief that The Tradition played a direct role in a rise in tourism and growth of the Central Oregon market. Hall, the former Bulletin reporter, observes that the area, with the openings and rise of acclaimed courses such as Pronghorn, Brasada Ranch and Tetherow, was already heading into “a new era of top-level golf courses,” and that the region was already becoming widely known as a golf destination.

The Tradition, he says, was “sort of like the cherry on top.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0307, .