Celebrating 30 years, Wichita Open is 'hot ticket in town'

Written by Amy Palser

If you’ve been lucky enough to land a seat on the 17th hole at the Wichita Open, you know why it’s considered one of the best parties in town. The typically hushed mood of a golf tournament has been swapped for a cheering, carousing, music-filled bash on that particular green — and even featured a rogue streaker a few years back.

“Don’t ask me how it happened,” said tournament director Roy Turner with a chuckle. “It probably got us more publicity in that 30 seconds than anything in the last 30 years. Welcome to the party, so to speak. There’s always something that’s going to happen down there that’s going to surprise everyone.”

The Coors Light Corner at the 17th green has helped make the Wichita PGA Tour event a rousing success for Wichita, as well as a darling in the world of PGA Tour events. This year’s Wichita Open is June 20-23, but tournament events kick off June 15 with the 30th Anniversary Birthday Bash hosted by SPLURGE! The tournament looks a lot different today than when it started in 1989. Thirty years of modifications and additions, many of them the innovations of golf outsider Turner, have helped the tournament come into its own — and kept the golfers and fans coming, too.

In its inaugural year, the tournament was one of the stops on the Ben Hogan professional golf tour and took place at Reflection Ridge Golf Course. In 1993 it changed its name to the Nike Tour, and in 1997 moved from Reflection Ridge to Willowbend Golf Course.

When Turner was named tournament director in 1999, he was a social golfer, but came with a plethora of knowledge about sporting events from his years in professional soccer. Originally of Liverpool, England, Turner played professional soccer for 12 seasons before becoming the head coach and general manager of the Wichita Wings indoor soccer league.

“I told the people who hired me as tournament director that I’d been in soccer all my life. I didn’t come with a script,” Turner said. “We’ve put a lot of plans together after experiencing what the tournament was about.”

One of the first changes Turner made was moving the tournament from Willowbend to Crestview Country Club in 2001. While Willowbend is a fantastic course, Turner said, it wasn’t suited for a tournament the way Crestview is. Located in east Wichita near 13th and 127th streets, Crestview is the only 36-hole country club in Kansas and was designed by legendary golf course architect Robert Trent Jones. Crestview’s North Course proved popular with golfers, while its clubhouse and other facilities could handle the foot traffic for thousands of spectators.

In 2002 Turner secured Preferred Health Systems as the title sponsor, changing the tournament name to the Preferred Health Systems Wichita Open. With the right facility and a title sponsor in place, Turner began to wonder how he could draw more fans to the event.

“It was way back when I realized that if I was going to have to sell golf, I was going to have to be one hell of a salesman,” Turner said. “I started to wonder, why can’t we make our event a lot more fun?” It was while watching the Waste Management Phoenix Open that Turner had an idea for how to answer that question. The Phoenix tournament’s famous Skybox 16 bills itself as “the most exciting hole on the PGA Tour,” where about 16,000 people can sit in stands surrounding the 16th hole, enjoy food and drink, and cheer and jeer the tee shots of the pros.

Wanting to bring the same exciting atmosphere to the Wichita tournament, Turner rounded up some spirited friends and invited them to live it up under three tents surrounding the 17th hole. “They made a lot of noise, and it worked,” Turner said. “It just grew each and every year from then on. Now it’s a signature of the tournament.”

The 50 boxes draw about 4,000 people a day to the 17th green. “As of Feb. 1 we were sold out,” Turner said of the 17th-hole box seats. “Sellout is not a word you use in golf. The interest level now is really up there — everyone’s talking about it. Everyone’s got tickets and it doesn’t start for four months. It’s quite the hot ticket in town.”

The 17th hole wasn’t the only time that outside-the-box thinking turned into a major success for Turner and the tournament. When Preferred Health Systems departed the Wichita community in 2013, it left the tournament without a title sponsor. “We weren’t able to find another title sponsor, so we focused on getting ‘Ambassadors’ for $15,000 each to help this thing have a future. Everyone said it wouldn’t work,” Turner said.

Turns out, they were wrong. By the 2014 tournament, which was now called the Air Capital Classic, Turner had successfully recruited 23 Ambassadors. Last year the tournament, which changed its name to Wichita Open, had grown to 27 Ambassadors, and this year it will have 33.

“The Ambassadors think this is a good opportunity, and we’re very blessed to have them,” Turner said. “I don’t know if it would work in another community, but it works here, and our community takes ownership.”

In spite of Turner’s nontraditional methods and the rowdiness at hole 17, the tournament director has always sought to respect the game of golf, and the players know it. The golfers seem to relish the support from the Wichita crowd and the party atmosphere.

“We’re going to make it even bigger and better this year,” Turner said. “Stay tuned, and come and see what all the noise is about.”

Save the date

Mark June 15 on your calendars for a birthday bash you won’t want to miss, celebrating two Wichita favorites. As the Wichita Open celebrates 30 years in 2019, the tournament’s annual SPLURGE! Night party is marking its 10th anniversary.

The Wichita Open 30th Anniversary Birthday Bash hosted by SPLURGE! starts at 6:30 p.m. at Crestview Country Club with hospitality on the 18th green, featuring the air-conditioned BKD Suite. Don’t miss the Douglass Wealth Partners helicopter drop; Envision is this year’s charity partner. Then at 8:30, the party really cranks up with music by the Fabulous Shirtheads and fireworks.

Tickets are available at wichitaopen.com or by calling 316.219.9046.

live  |  shop  |  dine  |  play  |  home  |  magazine  |  calendar  |  about  |  your turn