Goodbye to the Senior Gold Rush, goodbye to its organizer

Published January 25, 2002 at

Last week’s announcement that the Senior Gold Rush golf tournament is closing its doors was the final chapter in an event that will always be linked with Rancho Murieta’s North Course.

In nine tournaments, from 1987 to 1995, golfers like Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino and Chi Chi Rodriguez worked hard to make birdies on the same course where members aim at pars or bogies.

The tournament organizer here – and at Serrano Country Club, where the event continued – was Neil Belknap. This week, Belknap, a 23-year Murieta resident, dropped another bit of news. In July, he and his wife, Diane, will move away, retiring to her native Australia.

“I’ve had 15 years. It was a great thing,” Belknap says. “I’ll be 70 next January, and I’m ready for retirement.”

Belknap had been easing into retirement, and he had planned to make the 2002 Gold Rush his last.

Belknap says there has never been any research to determine in hard numbers whether the tournament sold houses or enhanced the image of Rancho Murieta. Still, he’s certain of the value.

“A number of people out here bought homes as a result of the Gold Rush,” he says. “People I play golf with say they wouldn’t have known about (the community) without the Gold Rush. …

“It plants a seed, and when the timing is right, when you’re going to move, you say, ‘Remember when we were out in Rancho Murieta? Let’s go out and take another look.'”

In the mid-’80s, Belknap was hired by then-developer Jack Anderson to market Rancho Murieta. Belknap suggested hosting a golf tournament.

They put on Nike Tour-like events in 1983 and 1984, and in October 1985 Belknap helped stage the Showdown at Rancho Murieta, a two-tour skins game with some star power – Fred Couples, Juli Inkster, Fuzzy Zoeller, Jan Stephenson, Patty Sheehan, Craig Stadler and Peter Jacobsen.

Despite the name players, the event lost money, but it was another step toward acquiring a Senior Tour event.

That finally arrived in August 1987. The week’s attendance neared 100,000, a Senior Tour record.

By the late ’80s, Anderson was in deep money trouble, and Raley’s began a nine-year run as title sponsor. After Raley’s dropped out in 2000, Maloof Sports and Entertainment, owner of the Kings, wrote checks for the final two tournaments.

Belknap says the event left Murieta because the Country Club wanted a dramatically higher fee, while Serrano, where development was just beginning, could be much more accommodating.

Over 15 years, the tournament contributed $4.8 million in cash and in-kind services to area charities.

Before getting involved in tournaments, Belknap spent 25 years in the wine industry, primarily in sales and marketing, but he says the business world is not a real preparation for the golf-tournament world.

The Gold Rush event operated with a serious budget – $880,000 and two employees in its first year and $4.1 million and six employees in its last – but Belknap says it’s a business that aims all its activity at a one-week period of long days and short nights, working with physical accommodations that can’t be changed, and starting each new year at zero.

“If you look at a cash-flow line for a golf tournament, it starts here in January,” he says, pointing at an imaginary baseline, “and you get to the tournament date and it’s here (steep climb) and then you’re paying all your bills and it goes right back to zero.”

So why is the Gold Rush gone and why are other Senior Tour events struggling or going under?

“The Senior Tour, as an entity, rode a big wave and always thought the big wave would never crash in front of them,” Belknap says. “What happened was some of the names, the real legends, have disappeared from the tour for one reason or another. … The true legends left the tour and a new breed came on. Part of that new breed was not the real stars. …”

The tournaments tend to run together a bit, he admits, but Belknap’s fondest memory is of the 1994 finale, when Bob Murphy and Dave Eichelberger settled a sudden-death playoff by playing – again and again – the 18th hole. Murphy’s par finally won, on the fifth try.

“We probably did as much money at the concession stand at 18 during that hour and a half playoff as we did all day,” Belknap remembers. “Because every time (the players) would come by and go back to the 18th tee, everybody’d go back to the concession stand and get another beer.”

The Belknaps will be moving to a condo on Australia’s Gold Coast, 50 miles from Brisbane. Yes, there is an adjacent golf course. But it being Australia, golfers might have to play through kangaroos.

“Someday I can sit back in the rocking chair and be able to say I had lunch with Arnold Palmer, I had dinner with Gary Player,” Belknap says. “Those things you can’t buy.”

When the pros played Murieta

Rancho Murieta tournament events organized by Neil Belknap:

October 1985: A crowd of 2,200 attends the Showdown at Rancho Murieta skins game. Craig Stadler and Alice Miller win $105,000 of the $195,000 prize pool. Also in the field: Fred Couples, Juli Inkster, Fuzzy Zoeller and others.

August 1987: Nearly 100,000 spectators attend the week-long inaugural Gold Rush, a Senior Tour record. Orville Moody wins the event amid much praise for Rancho Murieta’s North Course, club facilities and event staging.

July 1988: Bob Charles wins the Gold Rush. His 9-under-par 207 is two strokes better than Gary Player.

August 1989: Dave Hill captures the Gold Rush with a 207, topping Orville Moody by a stroke.

October 1990: George Archer shoots a final-round 66 to win the $400,000 Gold Rush. Archer’s 12-under 204 is a tournament record.

October 1991: George Archer wins his second straight Gold Rush with a 10-under 206.

October 1992: Bob Charles shoots a tournament record 201, winning the Gold Rush by six strokes.

October 1993: George Archer birdies the 18th hole to break a three-way tie and win his third Gold Rush title.

October 1994: Bob Murphy plays the 18th hole six straight times – five in a sudden-death playoff – and outlasts Dave Eichelberger to win the Gold Rush.

October 1995: Don Bies outduels Lee Trevino down the stretch, posting an 11-under 205 total to win the Gold Rush. During the tournament, some players speak openly of what will be announced two weeks later – the tournament is ending its nine-year run in Rancho Murieta.