The Shot of a Lifetime

Along with the biggest names in women’s golf, Shoal Creek hosting the 2018 U.S. Women’s Open this May 31-June 3 brings a sizable economic impact and incalculable positive publicity for the region. Beyond that, this event—whose champion walks away with the most coveted title in all of women’s golf—answers the question once and for all: Birmingham is a great golf town.

When more than 150 of the world’s best golfers descend on Shoal Creek, they’ll be following in a strong tradition of Birmingham hosting major golf events. The Regions Tradition, a major PGA Tour Champions event, has been held in Birmingham for nearly 30 years, five of them at Shoal Creek. The PGA Championship was held here in 1984. And the USGA itself has a strong history with the course, holding its 1986 U.S. Amateur and 2008 Junior Amateur events here long before awarding the 2018 U.S. Women’s Open to Shoal Creek. “The intangible impact for Birmingham is this puts Birmingham further on the map as a world-class venue and city to host major sporting events that have a global impact,” says Chris Nix, chief development officer for the sports marketing and event management group Knight Eady, which is partnering with the USGA to produce the Open. “It’s a big deal for the USGA to come to Birmingham, and it impacts both Shelby and Jefferson counties and surrounding cities.”

Nix points to the region’s golfing infrastructure and culture as part of what has enabled it to attract major golf events. “This community has not only some of the greatest golf courses both public and private in the country, but also some of the most committed people to golf anywhere,” he says. “The Alabama Golf Association is one of the strongest golf associations in the country. Our college programs are now putting out professional golfers literally every year. And so from the USGA’s perspective, Birmingham is a very golf-centric community.”

John Coppins, championship director from the USGA, has been living and working here for the past year and a half in advance of the event. That in itself is an indication of the preparation that goes into an event of this caliber—which began with renovations at the world-renowned course at Shoal Creek, including dramatic alterations to 10 of the 18 greens under the supervision of Jack Nicklaus, who was the original designer.

Other major undertakings are still to come. “If you think about all the logistics that go into hosting a major sporting event, where you normally have a stadium and parking lots right outside of it, and fixed concession venues…we don’t have any of that. So for us, we have construct all of these facilities—grandstands, the skyboxes, securing parking lots and shuttle companies. It’s a massive undertaking. But it’s extremely rewarding when it goes well.”

Coppins says the decision to hold this year’s Women’s Open at Shoal Creek was made back in 2014, after the club put its hat in the ring along with a number of other top clubs around the country. “Shoal Creek has proven that it can host major championship golf and events of this caliber through the events that have been contested here,” he says. “It starts with the golf course, but we also saw the success of the 1986 Amateur, the success of the Junior Amateur, and the success of golf events in Birmingham in general.”

Coppins says Birmingham’s unique sense of community spirit also adds to its appeal. “It makes a difference to have that support from Birmingham and Alabama as a whole to really put on a championship of this caliber,” he adds. “We’ve seen that support so far, and I think this is a community that turns out and supports the events that take place here, no matter how big or how small. There’s very much a sense of community as well as corporate support. It’s something uniquely Birmingham to say that it seems like almost any event that goes on here, if you tell people about it, they will show up.”

Coppins says the USGA will return the favor by bringing goodwill to the region with the kind of publicity that can’t be bought. “We broadcast almost 20 hours of live coverage on Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports,” he says. “You look at numbers of eyes on TV sets across the entire world, and this is a tournament that attracts major interest globally. What an amazing opportunity for Birmingham, for Shoal Creek, for the USGA to show off the best women golfers in the world.

“But at the same time folks are looking at where they’re playing,” he continues. “We’ll have stories about Birmingham and talking about our host site and the host community. I don’t know if there’s been a sporting event in Birmingham that’s going to have as far-reaching impact and opportunity than the U.S. Women’s Open.”

On the ground, the financial impact is more tangible. “With previous championships, typically we’ve seen anywhere from $20 to $25 million in economic impact for the region. We expect folks to come down from Huntsville and up from Montgomery, and it is a pretty substantial number when you think about it. Obviously that means hotel rooms, meals, car rental and other things.

“But what I think a lot of people don’t realize is we also have 2,000 volunteers—a lot of whom come from all over the country if not all over the world—who come in, spend money, and take in Birmingham. We’re also looking to hire 200 temporary workers for our catering/concession business. So the impact is a lot more than just that week. This event has the opportunity to have a lasting impact both economically and for the reputation of Birmingham and Shoal Creek well after we conduct the championship this summer.”

In the meantime, Knight Eady is publicizing the event in creative ways to drum up support from golf enthusiasts as well as people who have not traditionally considered themselves avid golf fans. The USGA Trophy Tour was designed as an interactive, mobile preview, complete with an opportunity for fans to take a picture with the U.S. Women’s Open Trophy; stories and images of iconic moments in Women’s Open history; and prize giveaways including tickets and merchandise.

“We were thinking, how can we really raise awareness in the community that doesn’t involve just your traditional advertising elements?” Nix says. “So our co-founder, Michael Eady, came up with this concept. The trophy tour is taking this event to the fans and the community—whether it’s to Railroad Park, the Exceptional Foundation Chili Cookoff, Topgolf, or Barons games. It gives us the flexibility to really go where our audience is and even our nonaudience, by which I mean the people who are just now learning about the event and are looking for a sports experience. We’re telling them this is one of the top sports experiences in the world, and it’s coming 10 miles from Birmingham.”

Coppins adds that the energy Knight Eady is generating and the enthusiasm in the community at large is contagious. “The support we’ve received from not only the Shoal Creek members and leadership but the entire community—Birmingham, Jefferson and Shelby counties, and all the local officials who’ve said, ‘Let us know what you need to make this successful,’ that is uniquely Birmingham. That warm reception and support does not go unnoticed, and it is truly a blessing for us to have so many folks in the community who are willing to support us.”