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PGA’s BMW Championship to bring 130K to Wilmington

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The Wilmington Country Club is preparing to host more than 100,000 spectators over four days during the PGA Tour’s BMW Championship. | PHOTO COURTESY OF WGA

WILMINGTON – Delaware has never hosted a top-flight PGA Tour event, but that is about to change in a few weeks as the BMW Championship arrives at the Wilmington Country Club, bringing tens of thousands of spectators to northern Delaware.

It’s a week that tourism and economic development officials have been anxiously awaiting for nearly two years since the host organization, the Western Golf Association, publicly announced its pick in November 2020.

Last year, an estimated 130,000 spectators attended the four days of play at the BMW Championship, leaving a more than $30 million economic impact in their wake at Caves Valley Golf Course, less than two hours away in Maryland. Officials expect to eclipse those figures this year.

Vince Pellegrino, vice president of tournaments at the Western Golf Association, speaks during a June media day event for the BMW Championship. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

The WGA said tickets are so far selling 20% ahead of last year for the four-day tournament that runs Aug. 18-21, with several days of practice beforehand. At least 150 companies have already purchased corporate hospitality options, including a mix of tickets, parking, private seating and dining, priced from $700 a ticket to larger packages at up to $290,000, according to the Philadelphia Business Journal. The inventory of 60 skyboxes, priced at $60,000 or more, have also sold out.

Tickets to the BMW Championship have become a hot commodity in the area in part because it’s the first time the PGA Tour has played at the bucolic Wilmington Country Club off Kennett Pike near the Pennsylvania state border. It will be the largest golf tournament held here since the LPGA moved its McDonald’s LPGA Championship from the nearby DuPont Country Club in 2004 after a 17-year run there.

“We’re Delaware. We don’t get Super Bowls. This is our Super Bowl,” New Castle County Executive Matt Meyer recently told Delaware Business Times at a media day event previewing the tournament.

Gov. John Carney agreed, saying he was excited for the arrival of the A-10 Women’s Basketball Championship and the G-League Championship game at the Chase Fieldhouse in Wilmington, but the PGA Tour event would be a whole new level of national exposure.

“Having these golfers come in is just a really big deal for us,” he said. “Tourism is a big part of our economy and there’s going to be an opportunity for so many people to see the Jackie Kennedy exhibit just down the street (at Winterthur Museum and Gardens) and to enjoy our great restaurants and the things happening now. It’s going to be really exciting.”

The Wilmington Country Club will host a PGA Tour event for the first time with the BMW Championship, and tickets are selling fast. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

Most of the hotel rooms in downtown Wilmington have been blocked out for months ahead of the tournament that is the second leg of the FedEx Cup playoffs, with the top 70 ranked golfers being invited to play at Wilmington Country Club and the top 30 earning a spot in the final. The tournament will be nationally televised on NBC, bringing hundreds of golfers, PGA staff and media to Delaware.

Jen Boes, executive director of the Greater Wilmington Convention and Visitors Bureau, said her organization was buying geo-fencing online ads to direct visitors toward local attractions outside of the tournament. A new digital coupon book will also get event spectators discounted entry to other places of interest or specials at local restaurants.

“We are now moving out of COVID and we’re super excited for the business and the traffic it’s going to bring to the entire New Castle County. People are going to be looking for things to see and do and places to eat when the tournament wraps for the day,” she said.

The road to the PGA Tour wasn’t easy for Wilmington Country Club, as its review by tour officials was upended by the COVID-19 pandemic. After passing the initial review, a tornado in 2020 tore through the golf course, downing more than 300 trees. In some cases, that drastically changed how a professional golfer may approach a hole.

As luck may have it, the country club had recently hired renowned golf course architect Andrew Green to come redesign the North Course. Following the storm, the club asked Green to remedy the South Course to the PGA’s needs. He moved bunkers and greens to utilize the space and challenge pros who routinely hit shots farther than the average golfer.

“Andrew, you’re our MVP because we were in trouble, and you saved the day,” said Tom Humphrey, chair of the local tournament committee and a club member.

While the players will be competing for a $15 million purse – up more than 50% over last year, and set to rise to $20 million next year amid competition from the upstart LIV Golf Tour – the revenue raised by the BMW Championship will benefit youth caddies nationwide pay for college through the Evans Scholars Foundation. One such caddy is Wilmington Country Club’s Frank Yocum, of Garnet Valley, Pa., who said attending Penn State University would have been difficult with the full tuition from the Evans Scholars as he is a quadruplet.

Although the PGA Tour has never played at Wilmington Country Club, there are some ties that bind at play. Ed “Porky” Oliver, a tour pro from Wilmington in the ‘40s and ‘50s, started as a caddy at Wilmington Country Club when he was just 11 years old.

Oliver would become an accomplished player, finishing second in three majors, losing twice to Hall of Fame golfer Ben Hogan. But he also won the 1941 Western Open tournament, which was the predecessor to today’s BMW Championship.

When the Wilmington Country Club moved to its current location in 1962, it donated its original course in Greenville to the city of Wilmington, which renamed it the Ed Oliver Golf Club in the late golfer’s honor. It continues to operate under the same name today.

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