The following appears in the June Gambling and Golf issue of Mile High Sports Magazine
It’s been 15 years since The International graced the local sports calendar, yet the memories are as vivid as they are fond.
Denver is one of 13 markets with franchises in the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL.
In other words, Denver unquestionably is in the bigtime on the sports scene. Extend the definition to soccer, Denver’s in there, too, with the MLS Rapids.
If there’s a major void in the current Colorado sports scene, it’s not in a team sport. It’s in golf. Part of it involves angst over losing what Colorado once had, but lost.
For 21 tournaments, from 1986 through 2006, The International at Castle Pines Golf Club in Castle Rock was a much-discussed annual August event – and also a quirky curiosity – on the PGA Tour.
Wait. Isn’t that jarring? The International has been gone 15 years. Many area golfers and sports fans still recall the tournament with affection, but a middle-schooler learning the game might have been born after its demise.
It was an annual exercise in elite golf at high altitude and was the passion of Colorado oilman Jack Vickers, who was such a golf purist, tinkly piano music should have been playing in the background each time he spoke at Castle Pines.
Subject to and often affected by the seemingly inevitable late-afternoon thunderstorms south of Denver, The International was contested under a Modified Stableford scoring system that in theory rewarded aggression more than traditional stroke play did. Vickers first proposed to host a match-play event, but when the PGA Tour rejected that, he settled for staging the only Stableford-scored event on the schedule. It was symbolic and appropriate. He didn’t want to put on a “typical” tournament. He also put money where his mouth was from the outset. At its inception, The International was the first PGA Tour event to offer $1 million in prize money.
That figure was up to $5.5 million for the final International in 2006, and the winner, unheralded Hawaiian Dean Wilson, collected $990,000. By himself.
Vickers nearly universally was “Mr. Vickers.” To players. To caddies. To valet parking attendants.
The experience more than eliminated any asterisk attached to his image in Colorado sporting circles because of his ill-fated two-year ownership of the NHL’s Colorado Rockies. In 1978, after major financial losses and a bitter dispute with the City of Denver over lease terms at McNichols Sports Arena, Vickers sold the Rockies. The buyer, Arthur Imperatore, was admirably open about his desire to eventually move the NHL franchise to New Jersey.
In golf, Vickers’ goal was not to make The International a fifth major, but to at least get it in the conversation about the most respected tournaments outside the Masters, PGA, U.S. Open and British Open.
At that, he succeeded. He came to be as admired and respected on the PGA Tour as any figure who wasn’t an ex-player. Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman and Tom Watson were among those who traveled in for Vickers’ 80th birthday party after that 2006 tournament. He had become one of golf’s elder statesmen without ever having a Tour card.
So why isn’t The International still around?
There were a lot of reasons, but this was at the top of the list:
Tiger Woods had better things to do. Tiger didn’t want any part of playing at high altitude in August. Tiger played in The International only twice, in 1998 and 1999. He finished fourth in 1998, behind Vijay Singh, Willie Wood and Phil Mickelson.
“It’s a fun tournament,” Woods said after his final round. “I was treated great, the fans were very receptive, and I had a great time. That’s all you can ask for.”
The next year, he played through a cold, but missed the cut. He was asked if he regretted not pulling out of the tournament. “In hindsight, maybe I should have, but I try to honor my commitments,” he said.
He never returned.
It’s not as if the roll call of International champions was devoid of big names. Winners included Greg Norman (1989), Davis Love III (1990 and 2003), Jose Maria Olazabel (1991), Phil Mickelson (1993 and ‘97), Ernie Els (2000) and Retief Goosen (2005). Even when the winners weren’t from among the tour’s glitterati – as with Ken Green and Wilson, the first and last winners, respectively – the tournaments were usually entertaining, with the unique scoring system catching attention.
Plus, and this is part of the fun on the PGA Tour. Every winner had a story. They weren’t the equivalent of Caddyshack’s Carl Spackler (“Cinderella story … outta nowhere … A former greenskeeper about to become The International champion … “), but they all had stories to be told.
Year after year, players – unprompted – went out of their way to praise Vickers and his tournament itself. To a point, such flattery is part of the built-in Tour protocol and routine. At every stop. At Castle Pines, the comments seemed extraordinarily sincere. (That’s not being naive. Honest.)
Yet during and around the final seven editions of The International, much of the discussion revolved around the man who wasn’t there.
What could be done to get Tiger back to Castle Pines?
That issue was as much a fixture in the coverage of the tournament as asking a golfer first to go over his birdies and bogeys in the interview room after a round, and the players’ rave reviews for Castle Pines’ milkshakes.
Els was one of Vickers’ most fervent loyalists. The South African wasn’t even prominent on the European Tour when he first was invited to The International in 1991, and he remained a regular and virtually always a contender.
Yet, even when Els, won the 2000 tournament in a Woods-less field, he brought up Tiger. Without mentioning him by name.
“It’s always great to win a golf tournament anywhere, especially for me nowadays, competing against ‘You Know Who,’” Els said.
How would he have done against “You Know Who” that week?
“Let’s put it this way,” Els said. “It would have been very tough for him to have beaten me this week. I tied the record score, I had 34 points after two rounds, and to be honest nobody pushed me the final round of the tournament.”
The funny part is everyone knew who this guy “You Know Who” was.
This is not “blaming” Woods. Setting his own schedule, within the PGA Tour’s parameters, unquestionably was his right. Plus, some of the talk underplayed the obvious: The PGA has a deeper talent pool every year. This no longer is Jack, Arnie and Gary.
Els and Mickelson and many others at the top of the game annually showed up. Tiger’s absence wasn’t the only issue, but the context was that the Tiger Phenomenon was transcendent during the International’s run. He was 22 and 23 when he played at Castle Pines.
Ladies and gentlemen, Tiger had left the clubhouse. And he wasn’t coming back.
Minus Tiger, the TV ratings and ticket sales were mediocre. The tournament failed to sign on a title sponsor after the agreement with Sprint – making it The Sprint International for six years – ended after the 1999 tournament. A less lucrative presenting sponsorship deal with Qwest – making it The International presented by Qwest – ended after the 2002 event.
Then, for the final four tournaments, it again simply was: The International. At the end, it was one of only two tournaments outside the majors, plus the Canadian Open and the Players Championship, to not have a title or presenting sponsor.
Vickers – “Mr. Vickers” – was a critic of the PGA Tour’s direction and its rejection of his request to be allowed to cut down the field from the Tour norm 144 to a more select field of 120. (That wasn’t just elitism. The chances would have been greater of getting all the golfers off the course before the thunderstorms.) He lobbied for a move out of an August slot, but also opposed moving the tournament to the fall.
When the PGA approved a switch of The International to early July dates in 2007 and ‘08, between the U.S. Open and British Open, there were arguments made on both sides about whether it would enable the tournament to draw a stronger field (i.e., Tiger) or scare off most international players.
“We’re missing one guy – the most important guy,” Vickers said during the 2006 tournament, when the proposed 2007 dates already were known. “I think these new dates will accommodate that.”
Notice? Vickers didn’t need to use Woods’ name, either.
After that 2006 International, though, indications seemed to pile up that the new dates would slash the number of elite non-U.S. players in the tournament. The Scottish Open ended up being slotted right after it. International players seemed inclined to being in Europe soon enough to prep for it and the British Open.
From the start, Vickers was proud of the tournament living up to its name.
But before anyone could find out the answers about the July dates’ effects, the announcement came in early 2007.
The International was history.
The official end came in a news conference at the Denver Athletic Club. The atmosphere was awkward because PGA Tour Commissioner Tom Finchem also was present. Vickers said a five-year contract extension with the Tour was on the table, but that he decided not to sign it.
Vickers portrayed the sponsorship issue as more of a sudden problem than it probably was, but the tournament had been operating in its final years with a group of sponsors – just without one paying enough to be on the marquee, so to speak. Apparently, that pool of sponsors was losing members, too.
“You have to have support to be able to do the right things,” Vickers said that day. “For 21 years, we managed, never having trouble getting sponsors. And, all of sudden, we moved into an era where the marketplace out there is not the same. I haven’t seen it like this in 21 years of dealing with the PGA Tour. And my philosophy is to do it right or don’t do it at all.”
“There is no question that (Tiger) has a profound effect when he plays,” Vickers said. “He would have had the same kind of effect here that he has everywhere he goes. It’s a phenomenon we can’t do anything about. But I have nothing but the highest respect for him. We just haven’t fit his schedule.”
There were mixed messages at the time, since Vickers after the news conference was defiant in a conversation with Woody Paige. He said he still had been hoping to be the first tournament to crack $10 million in purse money. He told Paige the PGA Tour “claims I didn’t have a sponsor for the $10 million tournament. But damn right I did.”
Colorado golf fans became accustomed to driving to the Castle Rock area, riding shuttle buses from makeshift lots used once a year to the course, then picking out a spot to watch from or a player to follow, or wandering the course.
That all ended, too.
Mickelson, the two-time winner, ended up the player most associated with the tournament. The second time he won, in 1997, he was a 27-year-old newlywed and called his wife, Amy, out of the crowd to join him during the check presentation ceremony.
“This game of golf has been pretty good to me,” Mickelson said. “The city of Denver has been pretty good to me as well, with me winning here twice. The Broncos haven’t been too good to my Chargers” – the crowd laughed and cheered – “so if you take away the Broncos, Denver is my favorite city.”
Ten years later, on the day the news of The International’s demise was announced, Mickelson was playing a practice round at Pebble Beach.
“It was a great event, one of my very favorites, with a unique format and a tremendous setting,” Mickelson said. “The treatment Mr. Vickers and his staff showed me and my family was personal and special, and we’ll always remember that.”
Jim Nantz, now a fixture on CBS football and golf coverage, made his debut as a tournament’s main anchor when he sat in for Pat Summerall at The International in 1987. Seven years later, he moved into the network’s lead golf coverage chair.
“I’m heartbroken,” Nantz told Dusty Saunders of the Rocky Mountain News. “I kind of feel like it’s my baby because I’ve grown up with it as a golf tournament. Each of the 21 years at Castle Pines was a special occasion since I’ve developed a very close relationship with Jack Vickers.”
At that news conference, neither Vickers nor Finchem would rule out a revival of the tournament, or the return of the PGA Tour to Denver. Vickers continued to speak about the Tour and other possibilities for years, alluding to such events as the Walker Cup and Presidents Cup.
If it ever happens, Vickers won’t be part of it.
The Colorado golf icon died in September 2018.
Terry Frei is a contributing writer for Mile High Sports Magazine. He is a seven-time winner of a state’s sportswriter of the year award in peer voting conducted by the National Sports Media Association — four times in Colorado and three times in Oregon. Among his seven books are novels Olympic Affair and The Witch’s Season; and non-fiction works Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming; Third Down and a War to Go; and’77: Denver, the Broncos, and a Coming of Age. His website is www.terryfrei.com.