Annual Media Classic runs its course ... maybe

For the better part of the last 21 years, golf writers descended on Arizona in early December for an annual event that consisted of camaraderie, good weather and, of course, golf

SCOTTSDALE, Arizona — The Scottsdale Media Classic, an annual gathering of golf writers from around the world, met its end earlier this month with hugs and a few tears.

The event, which started in 2001, was held annually in early December for 21 years, save for 2020, when it was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 20th playing earlier this month saw 60-plus writers and editors gather at the We-Ko-Pa Casino and Resort on the Fort McDowell Yavapai reservation near Fountain Hills, Arizona. The lineup of courses the writers played included We-Ko-Pa’s Saguaro and Cholla, Troon North’s Monument and Grayhawk Golf Club’s Raptor.

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We-Ko-Pa Golf Club's Cholla course was one of four played for this year's Scottsdale Media Classic.

The idea of bringing a gaggle of writers to the Scottsdale area was the brainchild of Gordon Zuckerman, then-general manager of the Resorts Suites in Scottsdale. In 2001, Zuckerman teamed with Bill Huffman, a local golf writer, to invite about 30 writers to sample the region’s golf offerings

It was in the days after 9/11. Air travel had dried up and Scottsdale’s tee sheets were showing lots of empty time slots. Huffman recalls Zuckerman telling him, “The way I see it, you guys (golf media) are the alchemists of golf, and through your stories and reports, you mix the elixir that golfers drink up and then come to Arizona to play the game.”

What started as a two- or three-year experiment grew into an annual tradition underwritten by the local convention and visitors bureau and supported by in-kind donations from golf courses, hotels, restaurants and equipment makers.

The event graduated into what some called “Huffman’s Clam Bake,” a nod to the nickname for Bing Crosby’s annual invitational golf tournament in California, the forerunner of the AT&T Pro-Am. Over the years, the Media Classic moved from Scottsdale to Mesquite, Nevada, to Tucson, to Palm Springs, California, back to Phoenix’s West Valley, then Tucson again and finally back to the Phoenix area.

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Bill Huffman.

Some years the writers paid a nominal fee, sometimes just their hotel bill or their bar bill, sometimes not. Gifts or tournament prizes included golf clubs, golf shoes, bags, balls and other golf apparel. Ping, for example, supplied prizes for 15 of the event’s 20 years, Huffman says.

“The Media Classic was everything I thought the Golf Writers Association of America’s annual tournament would be — a gathering of golf writers and reporters, a hundred or so, in those days when newspapers still had clout and the magazine market had not yet shriveled,” says Jeff Neuman, outgoing managing editor of The Met Golfer, the magazine of New York’s Metropolitan Golf Association.

Neuman credits a relationship he struck up with an MGA official at an early Media Classic for his being selected to edit The Met Golfer. It also landed him freelance assignments at the Wall Street Journal, filling in for the paper’s regular golf writer, John Paul Newport, another regular at the Media Classic.

Gary Van Sickle, a Pittsburgh-based writer who has written for Golf World magazine, Golf.com and, most recently, SI.com, says he attended for the golf and the weather. In 20 years he missed only one Media Classic. “It was a way to shorten winter,” he said.

Bruce Vittner, of Cranston, Rhode Island, publisher of Southern New England Golfer, calls the Media Classic “one of the best events I have ever been part of in my 32 years of publication.”

Ken Van Vechten, a California freelancer, developed through the Media Classic such strong bonds with several Canadian writers, “I might as well have a maple leaf tattooed on my ass.”

At its peak the Media Classic drew 108 writers. Over the years, writers from the Czech Republic, Mexico, Japan, England, Austria, Australia and Iceland were among the invitees. The event was a chance for regional golf publishers, writers and bloggers to rub shoulders with national writers such as Van Sickle or Joe Passov, a long-time golf course rankings editor for Golf magazine, a Scottsdale local who was a regular participant.

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Grayhawk Golf Club's Raptor Course.

In aggregate, the 350 attendees over 20 years played 20 courses in three states and produced about 1,000 stories, Huffman says.

Huffman and his co-organizer works Linda Dillenbeck, prided themselves on recruiting top industry people as speakers at each year’s Media Classic. Speakers included current or past PGA Tour and LPGA Tour golfers Tom Lehman, Notah Begay III, Kirk Triplett, Cheyenne Woods, Betsy King and Al Geiberger; instructors Stan Utley, Dave Pelz and Dave Stockton; golf architects, including this year’s guest, Bill Coore; and Arizona music and golf celebrity Alice Cooper.

“It was a collection of people who loved the game and wanted to learn more about it and explore new golf destinations,” Huffman says. Although he spent decades at Phoenix newspapers, edited the state’s amateur association’s golf magazine and continues to co-host the longest-running golf radio show in Phoenix, Huffman attributes his election to the Arizona Golf Hall of Fame largely to his role in the Media Classic.

The event’s end ultimately came down to funding.

“I don’t know if it ever generated the coverage the CVB and resorts were hoping for when they underwrote the Classics,” Neuman says. He still marvels at “the swag that arrived nightly in our rooms in the early years, golf balls and bathrobes and gift bags, comestibles and potables of all kinds.”

An official with Visit Palm Springs, that city’s visitors bureau, who asked not to be identified, said that organization never saw the “bang for the buck” it had hoped for from the Media Classic’s years there.

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Troon North Golf Club's Monument Course.

With golf booming as the U.S. comes out of the pandemic, Huffman concedes, it was getting difficult to get the courses to comp a day’s worth of tee times to participate for his annual event. Plus, the six months each year he and Dillenbeck devoted to lining up sponsors, courses and lodging was becoming too heavy a workload.

“It was a good run and lots of fun,” Huffman says. “You want to end it on a nice comfortable note and not in disarray because you couldn’t find the money to put it on in the right way. We wanted to end it classy.”

That being said, Matt Barr, general manager at We-Ko-Pa Golf Club, said he has gotten significant value from the four Media Classics his property has participated in and isn’t so sure the event is dead.

“We’re kicking around the idea of doing a large fam out here,” he says. “Maybe not the same thing as the Media Classic and maybe not next year, but we are considering something like it and there’s a good chance we might do something.”

Editor’s note: Writer Dan Vukelich participated in 14 of the Media Classics and won his division this year.