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Bellerive and PGA hit sweet spot with tournament that showcased St. Louis 'in a better light'

Bellerive and PGA hit sweet spot with tournament that showcased St. Louis 'in a better light'

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On the morning after Brooks Koepka hoisted the Wanamaker Trophy as the 100th winner of the PGA Championship, the big guns were still out at Bellerive Country Club.

As Chief Championships Officer Kerry Haigh strolled the grounds early Monday directing the start of a six-week process of tearing down infrastructure that took three months to assemble, 100th PGA Championship General Chairman Mike DeCola reflected on the impact of the event and the legacy it might leave in the region.

“One of the reasons I took this job is that I wanted the opportunity to show the world the other side of St. Louis,” said DeCola, the president and CEO of HBM Holdings. “We have some problems in this town that manifested themselves maybe in some unattractive ways, but that weren’t unjustified.

“But there’s another side to St. Louis, too. The corporate response, the (charity and disaster) responses to some of the incidents that have happened in our area are under the radar screen. Everyone wanted to focus on the bad things that happened. No one has focused on the great way our community responded to deal with the underlying causes. … It’s not what’s been getting the headlines. We were trying to give the world an opportunity to see St. Louis in a better light, and I think we did that.”

Whether the 100th PGA Championship was the biggest sports event in the region’s history is not quantifiable and is up for debate. But it’s certain that the spotlight generated by an estimated 550 million television viewers worldwide was the brightest to ever shine on St. Louis.

And what the world saw was a compelling golf tournament. A Tiger Woods run on the back nine Sunday. Huge crowds that swelled around the most popular player in the sport’s history. Fans whom golfers praised for being enthusiastic and respectful. The crowning of a champion who has won three of the last six major championships he’s entered (Koepka didn’t play in the 2018 Masters).

The tournament coincided with the fourth anniversary of the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson. There were peaceful local events noting the Ferguson anniversary but no protests or street blocking around the PGA event.

DeCola declined to discuss whether plans had been put in place to deal with potential protests, or if some of the logistics involving the shuttling of ticketed fans to the course were designed to limit the possibility of such. He said all of the logistical planning was done with the underlying goal of providing a safe environment for everyone involved in the tournament, including fans.

“We can’t thank the law enforcement organizations in our town enough for everything they did not just to manage the crowds but to manage security around an event of this magnitude,” DeCola said. “A lot of things can happen, and none of them did. Fan safety was critically important for us. Safety for our neighbors all around us was critically important, and I haven’t heard any reports of any vandalism or any major damage.”

The biggest glitch for organizers came Tuesday, when two electrical storms caused delays in practice rounds and forced organizers to shut down the shuttle runs from Westminster Christian Academy and Fenton Logistics Park. Thousands of fans were stranded at either station for hours, many eventually giving up and returning to their homes. When shuttles did start to run, the backlog had created a logistical swamp of fans needing to wade through metal detectors either before (Fenton) or after (Westminster) their shuttle rides.

“When there’s an electrical storm in the area, you want to keep people in a safe place,” DeCola said. “Getting people out of their vehicles, out of the buses, into the open is the worst thing we could have done. We had no place to put them once they got here, so they were better off where they were. I understand the frustration people had, but it really was for their safety that we were keeping them where they were.”

A more sustained storm Friday first delayed, then postponed afternoon rounds until Saturday. DeCola said the evacuation team was better prepared to deal with that afternoon’s happenings because of Tuesday’s chaos.

“I’m actually gratified we had the Tuesday rain event because it gave us a chance to practice our evacuation plans,” he said. “We found some kinks in those plans, and we fixed them so that when Friday’s storm came through and we executed the evacuation plan, it worked flawlessly.”

The weekend, even in cramming two and a half rounds of play into two days, went off without a hitch, putting St. Louis and its fans on display. The crowds around Woods, in particular, were so large and enthusiastic that Justin Thomas, the world’s No. 3 ranked player and the 2017 PGA champion, said it was the first time he’s ever experienced the real “Tiger effect” after being grouped with Woods in the opening two rounds.

DeCola said he heard TNT personality Ernie Johnson quip Thursday on air that “the St. Louis region has about 3 million people, and I think they’re all following this group” of Woods, Thomas and Rory McIlroy. Jordan Spieth, who has won three majors, said St. Louis should get another PGA Championship, especially now that the tournament is moving up the calendar to May, when the weather and course conditions in the Midwest are more conducive to major championship golf.

It’s not clear whether or when the positive exposure for St. Louis will result in another tee time for the world’s best players. The first step, DeCola said, is for Bellerive membership to agree to pursue an event. Members made sacrifices in giving up their course and tennis courts — deconstructed temporarily to accommodate the media center — for many months, and many of them served as volunteers leading up to and during the event. They are tired. They get their course back beginning Friday.

“My objective coming into this was to execute so well that any (golf governing body) we approached would have a hard time saying no,” DeCola said. “We’ll see if we did that. We’ll certainly go out and assess interest.

“If you look at how the majors are lined up, it’s going to be a decade at least before we have another event here, which will probably be long enough for our members to say, ‘OK, we are ready for another one.’”Tournament’s economic impact felt throughout St. Louis region

• BenFred: PGA Championship success a reminder of what STL sports fans have to offer

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