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Golf: Bring on the galleries

ST. PAUL -- It would be hard to argue that the Twin Cities had their biggest, best summer of golf in 2002, when area courses played host to the PGA Championship, the Solheim Cup, the 3M Championship and the Marshall Field's Challenge.

ST. PAUL -- It would be hard to argue that the Twin Cities had their biggest, best summer of golf in 2002, when area courses played host to the PGA Championship, the Solheim Cup, the 3M Championship and the Marshall Field's Challenge.

All four events attracted large galleries of fans.

Seven years later, Minnesota is in for its biggest summer of golf since then, though the schedule features half the events and most likely fewer spectators.

The Solheim Cup, the women's version of the Ryder Cup, will be played outside Chicago in late August. The Marshall Field's Challenge, Tom Lehman's one-day charity event that featured more than a dozen PGA Tour players, disbanded after the 2002 competition.

But the PGA Championship returns to Hazeltine National Golf Club on Aug. 13-16.

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And the 3M Championship, the Twin Cities' 17-year-old stop on the Champions Tour, begins a three-day run Friday at the TPC Twin Cities in Blaine.

The 3M and PGA championships were held on back-to-back weeks in August 2002 -- and both played to sellout crowds.

Times are tight

Big galleries are expected this summer, as well, but one of the events -- and maybe both -- won't be a sellout.

For the first time, the 3M Championship is offering free admission. Parking and shuttle rides to the course also are free.

And though PGA Championship officials are satisfied with the number of tickets they have sold, the event has a long way to go before it sells out.

Why the lag this time around?

As Bill Clinton so famously told us during the country's last economic downturn in the early 1990s, it's the economy, stupid.

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With unemployment hovering near 10 percent in Minnesota, times are tough. And for many, the price of admission to watch golf has become a luxury.

3M Championship director Hollis Cavner saw this coming last fall and headed off trouble by digging up dozens of new sponsors to cover the cost of admission for spectators this year.

He doubled his tournament's parking at the National Sports Center and the Anoka County Airport to allow for 20,000 cars a day. "And when the parking spaces are gone, the tickets are gone," he said.

"I think we'll double the size of our crowds on the weekend," Cavner said. "I think it's going to be crazy."

Giving a little back

Though the Champions Tour does not keep attendance records, Cavner and tour players say the 3M Championship has some of the tour's biggest crowds every year.

Considering that, why is the 3M Championship doing away with tickets that last year sold for $30 a day or $100 a week?

The economy and competition with the PGA Championship are two major factors. But Cavner insists an equally important reason is to say thank you to area fans.

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"We did it because we could, not because we have to," he said. "We thought after 17 years of such wonderful support from the local community, this was the right thing to do."

And he hopes to do it next year and beyond.

"So far, the sponsors are loving it and are glad we're doing it," Cavner said. "If the corporate underwriting likes it as much as we do, why not keep it free?"

A crowd pleaser

Don't expect any such price breaks at the 91st PGA Championship, which is selling weekly tickets for $300 and $425. No daily tickets are for sale.

"We're over 80 percent in terms of tickets sold," said PGA Championship director Michael Belot of his 35,000-ticket allotment.

The 84th PGA Championship at Hazeltine in 2002 shattered attendance records for the event. That record was broken two years later when Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wis., hosted the event, but the '02 and '04 tournaments remain the PGA Championship's best-attended events.

Belot expects another sellout this year.

But, he said, "Even if we don't sell another ticket, with what we've sold to date, we consider this a success. We've already sold more tickets than we did for each of the last two PGAs" at Oakland Hills Country Club outside Detroit in 2008 and Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Okla., in 2007.

And though the PGA of America sold single-day tickets to last year's tournament -- and will sell them when the PGA returns to Whistling Straits next year -- no single-day tickets will be sold this year.

"We think there is really terrific value with our weekly packages," Belot said.

Boys and girls ages 17 and under will be admitted free with a paying adult, something the 2002 tournament didn't offer.

Daily crowds of about 40,000 turned out in '02. With the free ticket offer for kids, similar crowds are expected in August.

With the combination of tickets sold and freebies to kids, Belot said, "we're going to have crowds as big as we had in 2004 (at Whistling Straits), which broke all our records. This event will wind up being one of our biggest and best ever."

Related Topics: GOLF
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