Event’s future at Kapalua uncertain

Between the Lines

Daniel Berger putts on the ninth hole during the first round of the SBS Tournament of Champions on Thursday at the Kapalua Plantation Course. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo


Thursday’s first round of the SBS Tournament of Champions marked the 19th time the Kapalua Plantation Course has hosted the opening event of the calendar year on the PGA Tour.

Mark Rolfing has seen all of them, from the unique perspective of television analyst and Kapalua resident. For the second time, the event has a backup title sponsor in the Seoul Broadcasting System, as it also was in 2010, the first year of a 10-year contract that expires after the 2019 tournament.

Hyundai was the title sponsor for the last six years.

“I’m always concerned when there’s a sponsor change,” Rolfing said Tuesday. “In the end it needs a high-profile sponsor, this tournament, I think, and Hyundai was it. … I just think this is a ripe opportunity for the right sponsor, but without the right sponsor I think the future will be questionable.”

Golf analyst and Kapalua resident Mark Rolfing looks on Tuesday. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Two decades is a long time for any single venue to host the same event on tour. The tournament has used free admission and Monday finishes to spice things up over the years, but the biggest feather in its cap is the sheer love that the world’s best players hold for the picturesque 7,452-yard layout.

Defending champion Jordan Spieth said he would do his part to make sure this event remains on Maui.

“Whatever us as players can do to keep it here, I certainly love it here, so I will do what I’m asked to to try and bring in either SBS for longer or even a new sponsor,” Spieth said Wednesday.

Rolfing, who stepped in as tournament chairman for the winners-only event in 2011, said that things are changing in the world golf landscape and Kapalua must be prepared to evolve. He wants to help, if needed.

“I’m ready, yes,” he said. “I would like to see everybody just look at the history of this event on Maui and look back at where we were in 1982 starting from nothing. That was the beginning of postseason golf in general and Neighbor Island golf in Hawaii. Just look at what made it successful.”

Rolfing founded the Kapalua Open in 1982, which became the Kapalua International in 1983. Those unofficial competitions that were held in November laid the groundwork for this event.

“We created an event that was totally different from every other PGA Tour event,” Rolfing said. “It was because of our island and it was because of our resort and it was because of the people involved. The players felt comfortable here. It was just a matter of us saying, ‘We want you to come here,’ and I haven’t heard quite enough of that in the last year from everybody on Maui.”

The Mark and Debi Rolfing Charitable Foundation served as the charity arm for the 2011 event.

“Kapalua has an unbelievable group of supporters and ambassadors amongst the best players in the world,” Rolfing said. “I would be sadder than anybody if this tournament weren’t here, but I can tell you I have talked to Jordan Spieth about it, I have talked to Bubba Watson about it. I have talked to enough of those guys about it to know that there’s a place for Hawaii on the PGA Tour. The PGA Tour needs to play in Hawaii and Sony is going to stay on Oahu.

“Kapalua is the best site, it’s got the history, it’s the biggest. It is the place that the PGA Tour will be if they stay here. I think everybody that you’re seeing here this week believes that it ought to stay.”

In 2019, CBS and TNT contracts with the PGA Championship expire, as does the LPGA deal with The Golf Channel. Two years later, the PGA Tour’s deals with CBS, NBC and the Golf Channel are done.

With major networks creating all-sports channels relatively recently, live sports open for bid will be at a premium.

“There’s going to be a major restructuring in the world of golf schedule-wise in 2019 because of television, because of FedEx Cup playoffs that could potentially move,” Rolfing said. “They are having trouble competing with the NFL. I think you’ll see some major changes to the schedule in ’19 and I think once we get over the hump of what happens between 2018 and 2019, then there will be some security here and I think that will happen.”

Things could move the game of golf to a consolidated worldwide stage.

“I think there will be a world tour 10 years from now,” Rolfing said. “They may not call it that, but there will be a schedule of events that go from beginning to end all over the world and everybody’s got to find their sort of spot that fits into that. I think January probably is the place for Hawaii on the PGA Tour. I just am hoping that it can ease its way back a little bit from the holiday.”

Rolfing feels good about the future here with the love expressed by nearly all of the world’s top players who make their way here.

“In the end the players are going to be the ones who really say what’s going to happen,” he said. “If you’ve got Jason Day and Jordan Spieth and Bubba Watson and Dustin Johnson — the best players in the world — all saying they love it here, they love coming to Maui. Everybody comes early and you don’t see a lot of practicing going on last week, you’re seeing whale watching and beach-going and zip-lining and all kinds of things, having fun. I think the tournament will be on sound footing if the players continue to support it and it appears like they are.”

* Robert Collias is at rcollias@mauinews.com.