Jan 16, 201201:27 PM

Optimism for ‘the Hope’

Larry O. Thiel, the Wisconsin native who now runs the Humana Challenge golf tournament that will tee it up this weekend in Palm Springs, hadn’t seen the latest tweet from Golf magazine’s Cameron Morfit, which left me for once with the pleasurable task of delivering actual good news.

What Morfit wrote, I told Thiel, was, “Anthony Kim commits to the Hope. First Norman, then Phil. Is there a comeback tournament of the year award?”

There was a pause, perhaps while Thiel considered saying “I told you so,” but he was above such thoughts.

“That’s awesome,” he finally said. “That’s awesome.”

Maybe a little I-told-you-so would have been in order, though, because when Thiel took over the longtime PGA tour stop known as the Bob Hope Classic shortly before last year’s tournament there was a widespread conviction in golf circles that not only was Bob Hope dead, so was the event that bore his name. The latest edition of Golf World magazine that greeted Thiel on his first day on the job used an illustration of a cemetery – with Hope on the gravestone, of course – to depict the event.

Thiel, a native of Chippewa Falls who had managed golf clubs in Wisconsin before moving on to the Memorial Tournament in Columbus, Ohio, and the International at Castle Rock, Colo., wasn’t buying.

“I spoke positively at a time when everybody was circling the pallbearers,” he said last week by telephone. “I always believed that if we looked at who we were and addressed the concerns of people, whether they were players or amateurs … we would be able to attract people.”

And so the Hope, er, the Humana, as it is now known after landing a new title sponsor, has done that. First the tournament aligned itself with former President Bill Clinton and the Clinton Foundation; Thiel said the sponsorship of a major company in the health care field and the Clinton Foundation, with its mission to improve health around the globe, offered nice synergy and allows Humana to align itself with a former president “who on a global basis is a rock star.”

The tournament also changed its format from a cumbersome five-day event to a more conventional (and player friendly) four-day format, with amateurs playing the first three days before leaving the stage to professionals on Sunday. And when Thiel said last year he expected the tournament to regain a key role in the tour’s western swing “sooner than later,” he apparently knew something his skeptics did not.

Phil Mickelson, the event’s leading money winner through the years, agreed to play after an absence of several years. Greg Norman, who doesn’t play often these days, also signed up (“He’s brought game with him, too,” Thiel said.), as did Dustin Johnson, Anthony Kim and other names worthy of being called “names.” There are 14 players who won the Hope in earlier years, five Presidents Cup team members and “umpteen major winners in our field,” Thiel said. “It’s just a terrific field.”

There may be other changes going forward, Thiel said, based on the surveys he will circulate among players and amateurs who take part in the event. Everything is open for discussion, from the golf course to set-up to any other issues the responses raise, he said, but the changes so far have produced an event with a future.

“This is the model that I’m going to tune up after this year. I can’t respond to one person or two persons but if there’s a trend out there … that’s how I know I’m addressing the issues that are important to the players.

As for Morfit’s earlier assessment, Thiel says yes.

“It may be seen as the comeback tournament if you look at all the positive things that are coming from a tournament many were writing off.”

He just needed to have, dare we say it, hope.


Be sure to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. And of course, sign up for your FREE subscription to Wisconsin Golfer magazine.