Tim Erensen revived the ShopRite LPGA Classic in 2010.
Conditions for the rebirth were less than ideal.
“If you wait for the right time to do something it probably never comes along,” said Erensen, the Classic’s executive director.
Despite that philosophy, Erensen, 40, wouldn’t have been blamed if he didn’t forge ahead in 2010. The U.S. economy was in a slump after the 2008 financial collapse.
The LPGA was at its lowest point since the tour began in 1950. The Classic’s home — Stockton Seaview Hotel and Golf Club in Galloway Township — was about to be sold.
The Classic, however, persevered through those obstacles and is again an integral part of the South Jersey sports scene. Fans packed the grandstands around the 18th hole to watch Karrie Webb win last year’s event.
The tournament will be held for the 26th time — the fifth since Erensen rebooted the event — this week on Seaview’s Bay Course. The $1.5 million tournament will again feature the world’s best women golfers, including defending champion Webb, Michelle Wie, Paula Creamer and teen sensation Lydia Ko.
In contrast to 2010, now would be the perfect time to start an LPGA event. The LPGA is in the midst of its most compelling season in years with a consistent presence on the Golf Channel and charismatic stars winning events.
The Classic’s future is its most secure since the early 2000s after signing contracts this spring with Seaview, ShopRite and the LPGA that guarantee the tournament will exist through at least 2016.
“At some point,” Erensen said, “you have to make a leap of faith and hope you’re doing the right thing.”
The Classic began in 1986 and continued uninterrupted for 20 years. But the tournament ended for three years after 2006 because of a dispute over dates between the former tournament officials and the LPGA. The LPGA wanted to move the event to the summer, early spring or September. The Classic wanted to keep it on the weekend after Memorial Day.
The tournament disappeared, and many in the greater Atlantic City area assumed that it — like many so other professional sporting events that came to Atlantic County — had come and gone.
Erensen, who lives in Greenwich, Conn., and had long been involved in the golf business as an agent and tournament organizer, came up with the idea of reviving the Classic in summer 2009.
At the time, the LPGA desperately needed domestic events. The LPGA Tour consisted of just 24 events in 2010. In 2008, the tour featured 34 events.
“That was the easiest phone call to make,” Erensen said of getting the LPGA behind his proposal. “Not only did Atlantic City miss the LPGA, but the LPGA missed Atlantic City.”
Erensen also needed to convince ShopRite to return as tournament sponsor. That was more difficult.
After the Classic ended, ShopRite stayed involved in the LPGA. The company was the presenting sponsor of the Sybase Classic at the Upper Montclair Country Club in Clifton from 2007-09. But nothing was guaranteed.
Erensen can easily remember the date ShopRite agreed to again sponsor the Classic. He received word on Friday, Oct. 16, 2009. The next couple of days were also memorable for him. He got married that weekend.
“ShopRite did their due diligence before committing to make the move back down here,” Erensen said. “That was quite the wedding present.”
The tournament has raised more than $27 million for charities since ShopRite and its parent company, Wakefern, became a sponsor. In 2013, the event raised nearly $1.3 million for local charities, aiding hospitals, educational institutions and the Community FoodBank of New Jersey, Southern Branch, in Egg Harbor Township.
In many ways, the Classic is ingrained in ShopRite’s culture.
“We’re a family-owned and operated business,” said Perry Blatt, director of Village Super Market, which owns ShopRite stores in Atlantic and Cape May counties. “I have a lot of memories of coming (to the tournament) with my grandfather. The fact that we’re the lead sponsor underscores the fact that we feel we need to be involved in the community.”
The Classic returned in 2010 and was held in June on Father’s Day weekend up against the men’s U.S. Open — not the ideal dates.
Originally, the Classic signed a series of one-year contracts with Seaview, the LPGA and ShopRite.
Since its return, the only real uncertainty the tournament faced came after 2010. Seaview was for sale. There was talk of the Classic moving to another course in South Jersey or even a different market.
But Richard Stockton College bought Seaview in September 2010 and provided the Classic with the stability it needed to plan for the future.
“My image of Stockton is like an old wheel with spokes, and in the center is Stockton reaching out to the community,” Stockton president Herman Saatkamp said. “This (tournament) is one of the ways we do that.”
Bigger and better
The Classic’s success since its return can be seen in the numbers. The two-day pro-am has ballooned from 692 amateurs in 2010 to 992 this year. The Classic’s sponsors have risen from 350 in 2010 to more than 450 this year. The number of volunteers has increased from 750 to nearly 1,000.
“It’s grown at a much quicker rate than we could ever have expected,” Erensen said. “I think we’ve been welcomed back to the marketplace with open arms.”
The Classic moved to its current dates (and the dates the former tournament organizers wanted) — the weekend after Memorial Day — in 2011.
“It’s a soft week in the marketplace,” Erensen said. “At one point, I remember the LPGA asking us if we wanted to play over Memorial Day weekend, and you could spin a lot of positives to that. But when we talked to Seaview and the casinos involved, they said that’s a peak week for us. We don’t need you there. We want to do our part to drive business to the marketplace.”
The Classic no longer lives year-to-year. In March, the tournament signed a five-year deal that begins this year with ShopRite, the LPGA and Seaview. Only three of those years are guaranteed. The parties can opt out in 2017 and 2018. That decision must be made 45 days after the end of the 2015 tournament, Erensen said.
“The (contracts) challenge us to push the needle,” Erensen said, “and make sure we’re getting bigger and better. We’re not going to sit back and keep the status quo.”
Meanwhile, the LPGA is on the upswing. Four new events were added this year, bringing the number of tournaments to 32. The Golf Channel will televise the Classic and will show more than 350 hours of LPGA events this season. Charismatic players and fan favorites Wie, Creamer, Lexi Thompson and Stacy Lewis have won this year.
If the Classic had not come back in 2010, it would not be in position now to benefit from the LPGA’s resurgence.
“There’s not one group — players, tournaments, sponsors or LPGA headquarters,” Erensen said, “that’s not bullish on the future.”
Contact Michael McGarry: