Bryan Karns freely admits he was geographically challenged before coming to Rochester. When told the city was located in New York State, the man charged with directing the 2019 KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship at Oak Hill Country Club immediately thought he was headed to a Big Apple suburb. Upon arrival in the Flower City, the Oklahoman discovered he was about a six-hour’s drive from the city that never sleeps. And that wound up suiting Karns just fine, because after PGA stints in Chicago and the nation’s capital, he was looking for a place more like home. He found such a place in Rochester.
During his two years prepping for and running the 12th major golf tournament at Oak Hill, Karns immersed himself in the community. He became a Rochesterian. He took in the Jazz Festival. Swigged some cold Gennys. Shopped at Wegmans. Munched on a garbage plate. Cursed the snow and frigid temperatures. Rooted for the hometown Red Wings at Frontier Field. And, most importantly, wound up forging friendships that will last a lifetime.
“To me, Rochester is a place with Midwestern (sensibilities),’’ he was saying a few hours before everyman golfer Ken Tanigawa wrote a storybook ending to the Senior PGA Sunday afternoon. “From the minute I set foot in town, people were so welcoming, so warm. Everyone was like, ‘What can we do to help?’ And that was the reception I received even from people who had no clue I worked for the PGA. It’s been that way the entire time I’ve been here.”
Karns was aware of Rochester’s reputation as a major-league golf town. He had been told by many that it supported major tournaments like few others. While serving as director of previous Senior PGAs in French Lick, Ind., and Washington, D.C., it had taken Karns three-to-five months to round up the 1,200 volunteers needed to run the tournaments. In Rochester, that many positions were filled 48 hours after they were posted. “That just blew me away,’’ he said. “And everything else fell into place, too. From corporate support, to support from law enforcement agencies, businesses, transportation, media, club members – you name it. There’s no substitute for experience, and it was apparent from the start that Rochester’s experience was going to make my job much easier than my first two Senior PGA assignments. Nothing against those places. It’s just that they were new at this, and this was old hat for Rochester and Oak Hill.”
Despite our town’s love affair with golf, there were concerns we wouldn’t vigorously support a senior major because it was a lesser tournament, featuring 50- and 60-year-old professional golfers past their prime. Plus, we had just staged a Senior PGA in 2008, the regular PGA Championship in 2013, with another on the way in four years. That would mark four major tournaments in 15 years. “You worry about perception and saturation,’’ Karns said. “What if we put all this effort in, and people don’t come out because it’s sandwiched between two PGAs here in town? Happily, that wasn’t an issue.”
Although the PGA doesn’t disclose attendance figures, Karns said Friday’s second round was the largest in the event’s 80-year history. And if the weather had cooperated (there were three storm-related play stoppages) and hometown hero Jeff Sluman had been in contention, perhaps the crowds would have been more robust. A final day leaderboard featuring defending champion Paul Broadhurst and a relative no-name like Tanigawa didn’t swell the galleries, but still made for a compelling finish. Inspired to give the senior circuit a try after being out of professional golf a dozen years, Tanigawa shot his way to the championship and into Oak Hill lore Sunday. While awaiting the presentation of the spiffy Alfred S. Bourne Trophy on the 18th green, Tanigawa looked skyward and breathed a sigh of relief. In the background, Karns was doing the same thing. Two years of preparation had been capped in memorable fashion. Although economic impact studies should be taken with a grain of salt, the Senior PGA was projected to create nearly 300 jobs and pump $44 million into the local economy. Beyond that, it added to Rochester’s rep as a big-league golf town. “The community really deserves to pat itself on the back,’’ Karns said.
During the next five weeks, he will tie up loose ends as the East Course is restored and turned back over to club members. Karns will meet with scores of folks individually to thank them for helping the PGA pull this off. And then he and his wife will vacation briefly in the Adirondacks and travel to Tulsa, Okla., to begin preparations for his fourth Senior PGA, which will be held in his home state in 2021. “This is going to be the standard that every future Senior PGA is going to be measured against,’’ Karns said. “As far as I’m concerned what Rochester did this week is as good as it gets. It’s been the best experience of my 10-year career with the PGA. I’m so thrilled to be a part of this town’s golf legacy.”
Karns would love to work the next major at Oak Hill. But even if he doesn’t, the club and community left an indelible mark. “Leaving is bittersweet because I became more attached to this place than others I’ve been to,’’ he said. “Yes, the winters can be brutally long and cold, but you have so much more going for you here than you realize. And it goes way beyond golf. There’s a great pace and quality of life here. People are caring and supportive, and more than willing to give of their time. I’m going to miss that, but this place will always be a part of me.”
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.