No solid plan for Cox Classic's return to Omaha

Bronson La'Cassie celebrates after defeating Matt Bettencourt in a four-hole playoff Sunday to win the Cox Classic at Champions Run.

Brett Harris stood with his sons on a small berm overlooking the 18th green Sunday at the Cox Classic and pointed out a nice chip shot.

“Look at that, guys,” Harris told Nicholas and Nathan, 10 and 8. “Pretty good.”

Harris, a Lincoln resident and avid golfer, was happy to be in Omaha to catch part of the final round of the tournament, which has brought professional golf to Omaha for 18 years.

Spectators were treated to an exciting finish Sunday with three bonus playoff holes before Bronson La'Cassie edged Matt Bettencourt. Organizers said the event was a success.

But the Cox Classic also ended without a plan for holding it next year.

“All sorts of prospects, all sorts of options,” tournament director Chad Mardesen said. “We're looking at all of them.”

The event's future is uncertain on several fronts.

Champions Run has indicated that it isn't willing to continue serving as the host course in 2014.

Cox Communications isn't set on sponsoring the event for another year., the overall sponsor of the developmental circuit, can't guarantee that Omaha will be in its lineup next year.

“It would be a shame to see it gone after 18 years,” said Nick Kelley, who, then the president of the Jaycees, led efforts to start the event as the Omaha Classic on the Nike Tour in 1996.

“I'm going to remain optimistic,” Kelley said Sunday, gazing at the packed stands and luxury boxes overlooking the 18th green. “Look around you. I think the community says we want this.”

Bill Calfee, president of the Tour, also expressed optimism following the event. He called Omaha one of the best stops on the PGA's developmental tour, praising the event's presentation, crowd support and hospitality.

“It's first-rate,” Calfee said.

Organizers met during the tournament to talk about next year's golf course and potential sponsorship. Calfee said he came out of those meetings with “no doubt” that something will be worked out, suggesting that the matter might even be settled in four to six weeks.

If the Cox Classic doesn't come back next year in some form, Omaha area golf enthusiasts won't be the only ones feeling like they've landed in the rough.

The tournament has an economic impact each year of about $9 million, according to Gary Grote, the Cox Classic board president.

Even the State of Nebraska gets a boost from the Cox Classic, which awarded $800,000 this year in prize money, including $144,000 to La'Cassie.

“Shoot, just look at the income taxes on a payout of $800,000,” Grote said.

At least 800 people volunteer to make the event run smoothly. And over the past 18 years, more than $2 million has been raised for local charities.

Grote said the event is a good opportunity for sponsoring businesses to entertain clients. Even people who don't love golf enjoy the evening entertainment that the tournament provides, he said.

“Anytime you're doing something that 100,000 people come out to watch every year,” Grote said, “you know you're doing something that people like.”

And Omaha boosters say it doesn't hurt to have a national audience watching the Cox Classic on the Golf Channel. In past years, the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce displayed a large “O!” logo on a hillside seen often in television shots.

The chamber didn't do that this year because of other budget priorities, including efforts tied to the Senior Open earlier this summer, said David Brown, chamber president and CEO. But he said television exposure for Omaha is worth a lot.

“Anytime we can get an image of Omaha out there that is strategic, where we show people a side of Omaha that they might not expect, we'll do that,” Brown said.

Brown said the local corporate sponsors who make major events possible — golf tournaments, the College World Series, U.S. Olympic swim trials — have to decide where they're going to spend their money.

It's possible, he acknowledged, that the Cox Classic won't be at the top of the priority list for those sponsors. Still, he said, the event has been good for Omaha, and losing it would be disappointing.

Brett Harris would agree.

His sons have started to take an interest in golf, and he likes having the opportunity for them to see professional golfers in action.

“It's just kind of fun,” said Nicholas, who also went to the Senior Open with his father.

Then, after one group of golfers finished the last round and left the green, one of the pros stopped at the rope line to give Nathan his ball, a Titleist.

The Harrises weren't exactly sure which golfer it was — Brad Elder from Dallas, they thought later — but that didn't matter much. Nathan, a budding golf fan, went home with a special souvenir.

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