When Jennifer Kupcho took a running leap into Poppie’s Pond last April after winning the Chevron Championship, golf fans felt they might have witnessed the final splash on the Dinah Shore Tournament Course’s famous island green.
It was to be the last time the LPGA major was staged at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage California where it had been held since 1972 with oil giant moving the tournament to Houston. But Menlo Park based biotech Grail had been exploring a sports marketing endeavor in the golf space and when the historic course became available, the maker of the Galleri multi-cancer early detection test jumped at the opportunity to mint a new PGA Tour Champions event and bring the 50+ men’s series back to the Coachella Valley after a thirty-year absence.
They may want to rebrand the March leg of the schedule the ‘time to get a checkup’ or ‘monitor your health’ swing with the inaugural Galleri Classic teeing off on the 24th. Grail’s event comes fresh on the heels of the Cologuard Classic, named after Exact Sciences’ non-invasive colorectal cancer screener and the Hoag Classic presented by the Orange County based healthcare network. While keeping the title sponsor trend for the month going was coincidental, the timing of the tournament proved as logistical a fit as it is thematically.
“When we looked at the location, we knew the players would be in Newport Beach prior to that and just in talking to people who know the players well, they’d been looking to have an event in the Palm Springs area for quite a while,” Bob Ragusa, CEO of Grail, explains.
13-time PGA Tour winner David Duval, now in his sophomore season on golf’s senior circuit, is very supportive of the circuit’s return to the desert, only a twenty-mile drive from PGA West where he recorded his historic 59 to win the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic in 1999.
“Even in contrast to playing in Scottsdale or Tucson over the years, playing out in the Palm Springs/Palm Desert area for this event on many days is as close to playing golf indoors as it ever becomes. It’s nearly like a dome this time of year,” Duval says.
“The golf courses are immaculately prepared and manicured and there’s ardent support by the folks who live out there and it’s a fairly similar fanbase age-wise to the people who are playing on the Champions tour,” he adds.
There’s been a lot of records set by golfers north of 50 lately. Last month at the Chubb Classic Bernhard Langer tied Hale Irwin’s 45 senior circuit wins tally and last weekend Jerry Kelly bested one of Arnold Palmer’s longevity marks, becoming the oldest player to ever make the cut in Players Championship history.
Duval attributes the continued extension of the age of peak performance to better training, nutrition and health monitoring tools that allow athletes to stay fitter and healthier for longer.
“I was not surprised with the competitiveness of Jerry and how he has been playing that he would make the cut there. I don’t care the conditions but you’re not going to tell me that a guy like Jerry, and you could probably name many others on the Champions tour, can’t get around that golf course at even par. It’s not like its 7800 yards long. The rough was penal but it looked to me that it wasn’t obnoxious. So, I wasn’t surprised to see it and I thought it was a wonderful thing,” Duval says.
Grail would love to see more history unfold at their debut event but their aspirations for the event go beyond putting on a golf event to remember. The company plans to use the Galleri Classic as mechanism to promote education and awareness surrounding multicancer early detection testing—their product screens 50 types—in the service of increasing successful outcomes of what is currently the second most common cause of death in the United States after heart disease.
“There are currently only five screening protocols in place and the majority die from a cancer that is not currently screened. We think Galleri will be able to make an impact there on early detection and ultimately be able to show better outcomes from that,” Ragusa says.
“If you look at five-year survival rates when cancer is detected in the early stage versus late stage, five-year survival is around 80% in early detection and around 20% in late-stage protection, so it’s a very important element,” he adds.
While Duval currently has a sponsorship deal with Grail, he actually took the company’s multi-cancer early detection blood test on his own accord, unbeknownst to the company, after the event was first announced.
“I got home and was talking to my wife Susie. We were having our annual bloodwork done at our doctor and we brought it up to him and he said he had it, so we went ahead and did it. It was an absolute no-brainer for people of our age and where we are in life to have a little bit of knowledge of what’s going on and comfort in hopefully detecting things, if there is some issue, early.”
Six charitable partners, all in the cancer care space are set to benefit from the tournament: the Palm Desert office of the American Cancer Society, Desert Cancer Foundation, Eisenhower Health, Hanson House, Pendleton Foundation and Shay’s Warriors Life After Cancer.
The post-victory plunge into Poppie’s Pond, transformed into a cement bottomed five-foot deep pool in 2012, may look at little different when the Galleri Classic leaderboard topper attempts to uphold the convention. It remains to be seen whether we’ll see a classic tandem running long jump style leap, a la tradition-trailblazer Amy Alcott and her caddie Bill Kurre, or more of a slip-in. Regardless, it certainly creates an interesting prop bet possibility for sportsbooks.
“They might just waddle in slowly. It’ll be fascinating to see,” jokes Duval.