By Ken MacLeod
The tight timeline for preparing for a professional golf event – in this case the May 12-14 LIV Golf Tulsa event at Cedar Ridge Country Club in Broken Arrow – is daunting, but manageable, tournament officials said Wednesday.
Both Tournament Chairman Frank Billings and Cedar Ridge Board President Billy Lowry expressed confidence that the club and course would be ready for the 48-man field that includes some of the world’s top professionals, including six players who attended college in Oklahoma.
“We have 150 days before the start of the event,” Billings said. “LIV Golf put on a tournament in Portland last year with just 77 days advance notice. We’re focused on being prepared and ready. And with it being a 54-hole event with spectators only on the course the three days of competition, it is much more manageable than other events.”
The contract for the event is for one year, although Lowry and Billings said they would be open to future discussions. Cedar Ridge is planning a clubhouse renovation in 2024. Billings said the club would not discuss contract details, but any funds the club makes from hosting the event would be welcome.
“Anytime we have a chance to improve ourselves financially, it’s a benefit, but with what we’re focused on is enhancing Cedar Ridge’s reputation in the golf community. We have a great golf course that was ranked in the top 100 for a long time. We have a great venue, a club that’s thriving and we want to focus on having world class golf event, one that the members, the volunteers and the players enjoy.”
Lowry said the club has been receiving numerous calls for tickets and volunteer opportunities already. Some of the LIV Golf stars include 2022 Open Championship winner Cameron Smith, Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Bryson DeChambeau, Phil Mickelson and Louis Oosthuizen. The players with Oklahoma ties are Charles Howell III, Talor Gooch of Midwest City, Oak Tree National member Matthew Wolff, Eugenio Lopez Chacarra and Peter Uihlein, all of whom attended Oklahoma State, as well as former Oklahoma Sooner Abraham Ancer.
Lowry played with Howell at Oklahoma State in 1999 before transferring to the University of Tulsa in 2000. Howell was helping LIV investigate the possibility of having an event in Oklahoma. He knew of Cedar Ridge, having played it numerous times with former member and college teammate Bo Van Pelt. He did not realize Lowry was the president of the board until after he had started conversations with Cedar Ridge General Manager Cleve Stubblefield.
“It was funny, I didn’t even know he was the president until we were pretty far down the line,” Howell said. “But it all worked out great.”
Howell was determined to find an Oklahoma venue. Not only did he play at OSU, his wife is from Kingfisher, he remains very close to his coach Mike Holder and he wanted the other players with Oklahoma ties to be able to have a home event. He talked with “five or six” clubs and Cedar Ridge turned out to be the best fit.
“It was something I felt quite passionate about,” Howell said. “I spoke to Talor quite a bit about it as well. Oklahoma is a great state and a this will be a great fit. The course is fantastic and very difficult depending on set-up.”
Of course, hosting a LIV event comes with a full range of political and societal implications, as the tour has been heavily criticized as either or both a sports washing venue for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and a league only serving as a vendetta against the PGA Tour for its director Greg Norman. The hometown Tulsa World came out strongly against a LIV event near Tulsa, the New York Times recently ran an analysis of LIV’s financial showing it has little of any chance of actually making money anytime in the near future and it still has no network television contract but is watched mainly on YouTube.
State and local officials have had a mixed reaction. Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt released the following statement.
“I am glad that Cedar Ridge Country Club has been selected as one of three new U.S. championship venues to host a LIV Golf League tournament next May. Oklahoma golf courses are among the best in the world and we welcome the surge in economic activity hosting this tournament will bring to the Tulsa region and the state.”
Lieutenant Governor Matt Pinnell, usually a major supporter of golf in Oklahoma, has a dimmer view of LIV, having written an op-ed in the Tulsa World prior to the 2022 PGA Championship that read in part:
“For one thing, Saudi Arabia’s record on everything Americans value — including freedom of speech, freedom of expression and freedom of religion — is about as bad as it gets. The idea of such a government overseeing a major sports league is worrisome to fans, hosts, and anyone who is inspired by the game of golf.
“Another issue: Golf events in our state aren’t just about the events themselves. The PGA and the PGA Tour both do a great deal of work to raise money for charities in and around their host venues. In its lifetime, the PGA Tour has raised over $3 billion dollars for charity.”
Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum said Wednesday that he had no comment on LIV Golf coming to the Tulsa region. Tulsa Regional Chamber president and CEO Mike Neal congratulated Cedar Ridge.
“We’re proud the Tulsa region will again be in the spotlight for professional golf this spring,” Neal said in a statement. “We congratulate Cedar Ridge Country Club on this exciting announcement and look forward to working with them as we welcome athletes and spectators from across the globe to northeast Oklahoma.”
Howell, Billings and Lowry said they would leave any political ramifications to hosting a LIV Golf event to others and were focused on the golf and member and fan experience.
“I make it a point to speak to as many fans as I can at each event, and they all tell me they’re having a great time,” Howell said. “Any of the politics, I leave to people more important than me.”
As mentioned, LIV Golf events are 54 holes with shotgun starts and a different vibe than PGA Tour events, including loud music played on most holes and various fan experience options that are different as well.
Cedar Ridge has long been recognized as one of Oklahoma’s top championship venues. Designed by Joe Finger and opened in 1969, it has hosted numerous Oklahoma Golf Association and state high school championship events. It hosted the 1983 U.S. Women’s Open Championship won by Jan Stephenson by one stroke over Patty Shehan and JoAnne Carner and was the site of an LPGA event from 2004 to 2009, won twice by Annika Sorenstam (2004-2005) and once each by Cristie Kerr (2006), Mi Hyun Kim (2007) and Paula Creamer (2008).
Getting the venue ready for some of the world’s best players by early May will depend much on the weather between now and then. If the winter is mild and spring comes early, there could be moderate rough, while the fairways and greens should be in excellent condition. A severe winter brings a chance of little rough plus winter kill. Superintendent Eddie Roach Jr. and his crew will be bolstered by the temporary return of retired long-time superintendent Mike Wooten to help as an agronomist during the preparations.
“I’m as interested in anyone to see how the course holds up to this level of player,” said Cedar Ridge Director of Golf David Bryan. “It’s a very challenging golf course. We likely won’t have a lot of rough at that time of year but Cedar Ridge has usually more than held its own.”
Scores at Cedar Ridge during qualifying for the 2009 U.S. Amateur Championship at Southern Hills were routinely high. That field included Gooch and Uihlein. The leader, Tim Jackson of Germantown, Tenn., shot 68 at Southern Hills and 72 at Cedar Ridge.