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Published: Sunday, 8/1/2004

Jamie Farr tourney rooted in persistence, little white lie

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Judd Silverman is the director of the longtime Toledo event. Judd Silverman is the director of the longtime Toledo event.
WADSWORTH / BLADE Enlarge

The third round of the inaugural Jamie Farr Toledo Classic in July, 1984, was long over, the coolness of dusk was moving in, and they were, perhaps, the last two people on the grounds at the old Glengarry Country Club.

Lauri Merten, who was then playing under the last name of Peterson, was finishing a late putting practice session and was less than a day removed from winning the first Farr Classic. She noticed someone near the practice green.

"I'll never forget this," she said recently. "It was almost dark, and Judd [Silverman] is out there with a broom in his hand, sweeping dirt and grass off the sidewalk. He looked up at me and said, 'Well, you gotta start somewhere.' "

The start actually came two years earlier when Mr. Silverman, the founder of the Farr Classic and still its tournament director, was more likely to have been found with a rake or a yardage book in his hand.

The Ottawa Hills High School graduate was a caddie on the PGA Tour, had a week to kill and maybe $20 in his pocket, so he borrowed a sport coat and a tie from a friend and stopped by the offices of the Ladies Professional Golf Association.

The result?

The Toledo-based tournament, now known as the Jamie Farr Owens Corning Classic, presented by Kroger, will hold its 20th birthday party this week, having paid more than $10.6 million in purses, having hosted an estimated 900,000 fans, and having raised nearly $4 1/2 million for local children's charities.

The winner this week will earn $165,000. When Ms. Merten won in '84, the entire purse was $175,000, and her share was $26,250.

But yes, you gotta start somewhere.

And it started in Houston, where then-LPGA commissioner John Laupheimer had the tour's offices.

"I guess it would have been May of 1982 and Craig Stadler, who I usually caddied for, had gone to Japan for a week," Mr. Silverman recalled. "I was working instead for Gary Koch at the Houston Open, but he had to play in the Monday qualifier and missed by one shot. The PGA Tour was at the Colonial in Fort Worth the next week, so I basically had a week to hang out, and I stayed in Houston with a friend from high school.

"I'd been thinking about trying to get some kind of pro golf tournament in Toledo, so this gave me the perfect opportunity to contact the LPGA. I called John Laupheimer's office on Tuesday. He happened to be in town and agreed to see me the next morning. I had to borrow a blazer and a tie from my friend."

Mr. Silverman told the LPGA commissioner that he represented a group of Toledo businessmen who were interested in procuring a pro tour event for the community. It was, to be polite, stretching the truth.

Se Ri Pak lines up a putt last year on the 18th hole at Highland Meadows. She went on to her fourth victory at the tournament. Se Ri Pak lines up a putt last year on the 18th hole at Highland Meadows. She went on to her fourth victory at the tournament.
BLACK / BLADE Enlarge

"[Mr. Laupheimer] was a real gentleman," Mr. Silverman said. "I was 26 years old at the time, but he never questioned my credentials. He treated me like a businessman treats a potential customer. He was very helpful, very professional. He said they would be interested in Toledo, and he gave me a little game plan."

Mr. Laupheimer, who left the LPGA Tour in late 1988 to become vice president of the sports marketing and management firm IMG, a position he still holds, said it was no stretch for him to take Mr. Silverman's visit seriously.

"It's not my style to slough somebody off," Mr. Laupheimer said. "Regardless of his age, Judd was very impressive in many ways. So I was more than willing to listen. We spent a couple hours together, and we talked about finances and other organizational details. I told him we would do anything we could to help, and that if he was able to pull it all together, we'd offer them a date."

Mr. Silverman continued his caddie career for another year, and when he returned to his hometown in June, 1983, he shared the idea for a tournament with Mike Porter, then the president of the Toledo Area Chamber of Commerce.

"I put together a strategy of finding 15 local companies each willing to put up $15,000," Mr. Silverman said. "Mike provided me with a desk and a phone and pointed me in the right direction."

A lot of work resulted in Mr. Silverman finding a dozen businesses willing to be $15,000 sponsors. But that was short of the $200,000 Mr. Laupheimer had suggested the tournament would have to have in the bank before a contract could be signed with the LPGA. And he had also warned Mr. Silverman that even with the proper bankroll, a new tournament facing considerable start-up expenses would be very likely to lose money.

"That's when I received a call from Marc Stockwell, who was on the board of directors of the Ronald McDonald House of northwest Ohio," Mr. Silverman said. "He said he had heard we were trying to start an LPGA tournament, and he told me the Ronald McDonald House was looking for a fund-raiser."

From that phone call came the marriage that allowed the Farr Classic to mature into northwest Ohio's most successful annual sports event.

Don Michel, another board member of the Ronald McDonald House and a McDonald's Restaurant franchise owner, convinced the area franchisees to underwrite the first tournament in return for the Ronald McDonald House becoming its charitable beneficiary.

"That was huge," Mr. Silverman said. "The LPGA had warned us we'd lose money, but the McDonald's owners agreed to take on all the liability."

The first Farr Classic was a huge success - it was exciting, with Ms. Merten edging LPGA star Nancy Lopez for the title; it was well attended by more than 50,000 fans, and it drew more than 900 local volunteers - in all ways but one. Because of start-up costs, the tournament lost $19,000.

"I held my breath, went back to the McDonald's owners with my hand out, and they agreed to give it one more year," Mr. Silverman said.

The second Farr Classic showed a profit of $55,000. A corporate entity, Toledo Classic Inc., was formed as a not-for-profit agency to run the tournament, and, in appreciation, made the Ronald McDonald House a permanent beneficiary. Through the years, Ronald McDonald House Charities has realized nearly $800,000 from the $4.3 million raised by the tournament for charity.

"It has been a tremendous partnership that has paid off nicely for both sides," Mr. Silverman said. "And I'd like to think that John Laupheimer taking a few minutes of his time to meet with me in Houston has paid off nicely for the LPGA too."

There was one other issue that had to be dealt with back in 1983 that also proved to play a huge role in the tournament's success. It needed a name.

Mr. Michel, who paved the way for the backing of the McDonald's franchisees, was a boyhood friend of Toledo-born actor Jamie Farr, then ending a long run as Cpl. Max Klinger on M*A*S*H, the hugely successful television show.

"When I was working as a caddie, Craig Stadler played in the Bing Crosby National Pro-Am, the Bob Hope Desert Classic, and the Andy Williams San Diego Classic," Mr. Silverman said. "I was exposed to the celebrity element that, in my opinion, made those tournaments more special than other tour events.

"So Jamie immediately came to mind for our tournament and, thanks to him being a childhood friend of Don's, it came together perfectly."

In addition to lending his name to the event, Mr. Farr has traveled from his home in California to attend each tournament and lines up celebrity friends to join him in many of the Farr Classic's early week pro-am events.

"I thought it was just a terrific idea, and it was a wonderful chance for me to give something nice back to the community," Mr. Farr said. "But I have to tell you, I was just starting a new TV series called After M*A*S*H. I would have thought that would run 20 years. I wasn't so sure about the golf tournament.

"There was some negativity at the start, some doubts. Without the McDonald's people it would have been totally impossible. The rest has come through Judd's perseverance and the support of the volunteers and the entire community. I'm so proud of what has been raised for charity."

Much of that has been possible because of corporate support, including that of title sponsors Kroger and now Owens Corning, that has allowed the purse to grow from a modest $175,000 in 1984 to its current $1.1 million. The average LPGA purse for a nonmajor tournament is about $1.2 million.

"One of the factors that made the Toledo tournament so successful is that Judd got Jamie involved, and he has been a huge asset," Mr. Laupheimer said. "As LPGA commissioner, my experience was that the nonmajor markets were the very best places we played. They were our bread and butter, the events that kept the tour going. That's because people like Judd and Jamie made it personal with the community.

"Looking at it 20 years later, it's apparent that Judd runs one of the very finest operations in pro golf. For him and Jamie to have kept this tournament going strong through all the challenges of operating in this day and age is a great testimonial to them and the Toledo community."

Mr. Farr is popular in the golf community as well.

"Jamie Farr is the epitome of a great host," said Ms. Merten. "In the years I played there he always put his heart and soul into it. He and the tremendous crowds are what make the golfers feel very special in Toledo."

Mr. Farr, who celebrated his 70th birthday on July 1, said he used to play in pro-am events at pro tournaments hosted by the late Bing Crosby and Dinah Shore.

"There was such warmth and human feeling from those hosts," Mr. Farr said. "It's different than having just corporate sponsorship, although I know how important that is. But I think it helps having a name up front, a favorite son, so to speak. And I've been so honored that it's my name on Toledo's tournament."

Contact Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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