Gulf Coast hosts first Champions Tour event

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SAUCIER, Miss. (AP) — Organizers of the Champions Tour's Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic are trying to send a message to the world that the area, devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, is back in business.

The deadly hurricane made a direct hit on the coast, sending a 35-foot storm surge across the low-lying area, destroying the casinos, restaurants, businesses and homes that line Highway 90 and draw thousands of tourists every year. According to an August 2009 report from Gov. Haley Barbour about recovery progress, Hurricane Katrina caused $90 billion worth of destruction in Mississippi.

Coverage of the disaster left many with a lingering image of the beach littered with wreckage. Backers hope to replace that with images of some of the world's best known golfers playing on a lush new course.

"We were looking for an event that would draw public attention," said Anthony Topazi, president and CEO of Mississippi Power and the chairman of the board of the tournament. "So when we heard a tournament was available we jumped."

The tournament, the only new stop for the Champions Tour in the United States this year, does not have a single sponsor, instead 12 Gulf Coast businesses joined together to land the event. The group signed a contract with the PGA Tour in November, getting a three-year commitment, and began raising money.

"It takes between $3.5 and $3.7 million to put on a first class event," Topazi said.

The tournament will have a $15 million impact, according to calculations by the state tourism agency.

"More important is the attention it will get," Topazi said.

Not all the pre-Katrina businesses along the coast have returned, said Richard Forester, executive director of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau.

"We still have some holes in terms of family attractions," Forester said. "But they are filling up fast, and we expect this tournament to really heat things up."

According to figures provided by the state, Forester said, visitors spent $1.345 in Harrison County alone last year.

Play will be at Fallen Oak, designed by Tom Fazio, and opened in 2006. Golfweek ranked it the 19th best "public" course and 55th among the modern courses built in the last 50 years

Residents are excited about the tournament at , Topazi said.

"We thought we needed 800 volunteers to do this right," he said. "We now have 1000 people working on it."

And, Topazi said, the volunteers paid $55 each for privilege.

Admission is an affordable $15 and fans will get to see a strong field of golfers who are 50 or older, including Bernhard Langer, a two-time winner this year.

The champion will receive $240,000 from a $1.6 million purse.