Special Profile: Karbo’s tee shot has positioned Ann Arbor on golf’s professional scorecard

Keith Karbo has one of those personalities that reaches across the table and grabs your attention by the throat. He has a huge smile he flashes often, an aura about him that people gravitate to and the type of ambition that is not only inviting but intoxicating.

In other words, he’s got plenty of mojo.

And when people with mojo say, “I was trying to find something that I could do that would make a difference in this community,” they aren’t thinking about having a car wash, or hosting a rummage sale or picking up trash along the side of the road. They are thinking big. Really big.

And for Karbo, “really big” meant bringing something with national and international appeal into his backyard that would “make a difference” for his entire neighborhood.

Keith Karbo with last year’s champion Shanshan Feng

“All of my jobs prior to this had some kind of community or charitable aspect to it,” Karbo said. “My wife, Amy, told me to go back to doing not only what I do best but what I love doing the most. So we set out to create a major event and that’s exactly what we did.”

Yes, that’s exactly what they did.

A few years back, as the story goes, Karbo was stopped at a red light in Ann Arbor right near Travis Pointe Country Club. It gave him time to think. Enough time to think big. Really big.

And he saw an opportunity based on a couple of facts. One is that Michigan is crazy for golf. In a 2015 article by golf.com, Michigan was ranked sixth in the country in the site’s top 50 states ranked by their “golfiness.” Another fact was that Michigan hasn’t had a regular stop on a professional tour since 2009. The third factor was that Ann Arbor is a special place with international appeal and would be a perfect city to host an annual professional golf tournament.

It was game on.

In December 2014, Karbo contacted KC Crain, an executive in the very successful Crain publishing business. He presented his plan for a golf tournament in Southeastern Michigan and Crain didn’t hesitate, believing it was the right time and certainly the right place for a golf tournament.

Crain helped use his influence in the business community to get the ball rolling and it landed at the first tee in 2016.

The LPGA Volvik Championship was developed from Karbo’s desire to create a professional sports event that would benefit the local community, support charity, and grow the economy, especially locally. The third annual tournament is May 21-27 at Travis Pointe Country Club right here in Ann Arbor – not far from that red light where the whole idea first teed off.

Unlike a player’s scorecard, there are several ways to measure the success of a golf tournament. The LPGA Volvik Championship in Ann Arbor has added up to an impressive score no matter how you slice it.

“There hasn’t been a regular professional golf tournament in Southeast Michigan since 2009 so I think the community was ready to embrace it and not only in Ann Arbor but in Southeast Michigan,” said Karbo, the tournament director. “We sold tickets in 30 states, have volunteers coming from 22 states so what we thought of originally as a local and regional event truly is a national event. It’s nationally televised and internationally broadcast to over 150 countries, we get 30,000 spectators over the course of the week and we have 550 volunteers. People were ready for this. They were ready to embrace it and it was the right fit at the right time at the right course. Everything just lined up.”

It certainly did.

Volvik, the South Korean-based company that makes colored golf balls, wanted its name linked to a golf tournament. Travis Pointe featured an elite golf course with enough space to host a tour event in a golf-crazed part of the country. And, most importantly, it had a driving force with enough distance off the tee to make it happen in Karbo.

Like any great leader, Karbo has surrounded himself with a first-rate foursome which features Tournament Managers Pauls Ejups and Amy Karbo (Keith’s wife who handles marketing and the pro-am), Media and Public Relations Director Bruce Madej (longtime U-M media director) and Creative Director Bob Laperriere. Abbey Zacharias is the tournament intern.

“We found the right people to work with like Bruce Madej, and partnering with the Ann Arbor Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, and everyone at Travis Pointe,” Karbo said. “It’s been very successful in part because of the people we have put together.”

And that incredible success in a short period of time has pushed things to the next level. If you start shooting par on every hole, the next goal is to start making those birdie putts. And Karbo has exactly that idea lined up for his golf tournament.

“It’s been embraced from the start but now is the time we need to figure out how to grow and grow quicker,” he said, leaning back in his chair – which is very important. People with confidence lean back in their chair; people looking for answers lean forward.

“You can always sell more tickets but we need to find more corporate support from the community and that’s our No. 1 focus right now,” he continued. “There are a lot of businesses that I don’t think fully understand the tournament yet and those that have been out to the tournament realize what a jewel it is and they come back next year.”

There also is a misconception that everyone needs to be a million-dollar sponsor and Karbo insists that is not the case. It’s not the size of the check but the size of the commitment.

“We are looking at how a sponsor is engaged with the tournament,” he said. “Whether it’s a $2,000 sponsor or a $100,000 sponsor we pride ourselves in finding the right package that will help them accomplish their business goals. It can be group tickets, signage at the tournament or some kind of promotion. If everyone did something the tournament would grow exponentially.”

Volvik is in its third and final year as the title sponsor of the event.

“The LPGA wants to continue here and make this a long-term event,” Karbo said. “When we had our initial press conference in 2015 the LPGA commissioner said that with this type of turnout here we want this to be a 30-year tournament, not just a three-year tournament.

“Travis Pointe wants to continue this relationship. I’m not sure where Volvik stands as a title sponsor but they’ve been a good partner for us. But long-term we are looking for more local support. These tournaments do really well when there is major corporate support that understands how important they are for the community.

“We are trying to find partners, whether it’s the title sponsor or official partners, that see the value in the tournament, understand that they can use it as a marketing tool, an entertainment tool and as a community tool.”

While Volvik’s future is up in the air, Karbo’s future certainly is not. He’s exactly where he wants to be.

“Amy and I have three wonderful kids,” he said. “We don’t live too far from the Big House. And this is home. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

“Ann Arbor is a fantastic community with an international flavor to it. It’s also the right demographic for the LPGA. It was a place the LPGA wanted to be. We even include Ann Arbor in our logo because we believe it’s what helps make this tournament special.”

Starting a golf tournament is hard work. So is keeping it going and taking it to the next level. But the guy with the big smile leaning back in his chair is confident that this tournament is ready to make the turn not to the back nine but to the front row.

The LPGA Volvik Championship will be internationally televised in over 150 countries and create a $20 million economic impact for southeast Michigan. Being played through Memorial Day weekend, the event will raise awareness for charities, including those that benefit military families. For more information, log onto http://volviklpga.com

 

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