WEST POINT — Their mission wasn’t simple: Draw more than 100,000 spectators to the 54th annual U.S. Women’s Open at Old Waverly Golf Club, listed by Golf Digest as one of America’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses, sell 52 sponsorships and publish the largest program guide ever.
For championship director Karen Cheshire, it was no problem.
“There were so many naysayers that said we couldn’t do it, but we did — on all three counts,” Cheshire said.
After Juli Inkster, 38, a mother of two from Los Altos, Calif., walked away with $315,000 with a record 16-under-par for a final tally of 272, and the tiny city of 14,000 drew 102,735 spectators for the best attended sports event in the state’s history May 31 to June 6, Cheshire was also walking away with records.
A new corporate record was set when 51 of 52 sponsorships, ranging from $10,000 to $150,000, were sold to raise money for the tournament. Another record was set when the largest tournament magazine in U.S. Women’s Open history was published. The 224-page program, with 132 full-page ads ranging from $3,000 to $5,000 each, was graced with Sara Lee, Bryan Foods corporate parent, on the back cover.
George Bryan, whose father was one of the founders of West Point-based Bryan Foods in 1934, made a presentation to the U.S. Golf Association in 1995 on behalf of West Point and Old Waverly Golf Club.
West Point Mayor Kenny Dill said he disagrees with the formula the USGA used to determine attendance. He said more than 102,375 spectators showed up.
“We asked the Mississippi Department of Transportation to estimate the crowd and we also had a parking specialist company count the number of cars in the parking lot,” Dill said. “The figures we came up with were between 110,000 and 117,000, but needless to say, we’re pleased.”
So were merchants. About $20 million was expected as an economic boost to the state.
Bob Dixon, senior vice president of new business development for Mossy Oak, said traffic increased 53% from the same week last year in the recently expanded outlet mall that includes Haas Outdoors.
“Above and beyond just the obvious dollar increase in sales volume, we had a tremendous amount of traffic from people who were seeing our store for the first time,” Dixon said. “As we get closer to the buying season and to Christmas season, there will be a residual impact that can’t be measured today.”
Louise Campbell, executive director of the Clay County Economic Development Authority, said gas stations, hotels and restaurants within a 60-mile radius stayed packed during the tournament.
“The majority of people, once they got out to the golf course, probably stayed and had lunch at Old Waverly,” said Campbell, who was also a tournament volunteer. “The best time for restaurants was at night.”
Bottled water was a hot commodity, said Dill.
“Businesses probably sold all the bottled water they could get their hands on during the week,” he said. “Not only were most businesses doing very well the week of the tournament but other types of businesses, such as landscaping, printing and construction, were busy up to a year before. One owner of a garden center said she’d sold everything that had a bloom on it.”
Sales tax figures can be compared, but publicity and free advertising can’t, Dill said.
“Almost 200 million people in 75 countries were watching the tournament on ESPN,” he said. “You can’t buy positive coverage like that.”
Cheshire called the experience “phenomenal.”
“There was an incredible sense of pride among the residents and volunteers,” she said.
The only negative comment Cheshire heard was about the weather when thunderstorms rolled in mid-week, she said.
“We couldn’t control the weather so we did the best we could to offset it by having air-conditioned shuttle vans in the parking lot to help get people to their cars,” she said. “We stocked more water and more ice all over the golf course. We tried to take that extra step and ironically, it gave us a chance for southern hospitality to really shine.”
Carolyn Ellis, championship assistant, was so hoarse the day after the tournament that she could barely talk. Ellis was in charge of 1,500 volunteers from 24 states who signed up two years prior to the event and began training last summer.
“She ran the troops and did a brilliant job,” said Cheshire.
Ellis and an intern were the first ones on the golf course every morning during the tournament. Their day started around 4 a.m. by making coffee and organizing schedules before volunteers checked in. They were the last ones to leave every evening, sometimes as late as 2 a.m.
“The most sleep I got was three hours,” she said, in a whisper. “Emotions were up and down all week. But everybody coming together as a team made it happen.”
Betse Hamilton of the U.S. Golf Association said residents in the Golden Triangle area were very supportive.
“The USGA loved being here,” Hamilton said. “It was a wonderful experience for us all.”
Dianne Dyar, charter member of the newly organized National Executive Women’s Golf Association in Mississippi and executive director of the Madison County Chamber of Commerce, was one of 25 women golfers who made the bus trip to Old Waverly during the tournament.
“Being so close to the action was wonderful,” Dyar said. “We couldn’t believe we drove just a few hours or so from Jackson to see these tremendous golfers.”