KEY BISCAYNE, FLA — Like Ponce de Leon, an earlier adventurer in Florida, Butch Buchholz out of St. Louis arrived a quarter century ago, looking for a treasure. The Spanish explorer sought the Fountain of Youth. Buchholz searched for a place where talented youths swinging tennis rackets could charm the locals and acquire some treasure for their bank accounts.
Buchholz succeeded, though he had to wade through numerous swampy trials, tribulations and heartaches before establishing his goal: today the $ 9 million Sony Ericsson Open. Poor Ponce. He did a lot of swamp wading himself in 1513, and had to deal with unfriendly alligators – but no eternal fountain bubbled for him. Had he found the elixir (and eternal youth), de Leon could have bottled it, and he might be playing golf today with Buchholz.
There will be more golf for Earl (Butch) Buchholz Jr., who, marking the 25th anniversary of his baby, has settled into retirement as the leader. But he was good enough at tennis to rank No. 5 in the world in 1960 before joining the vagabond pros, and make the quarter-finals of Wimbledon in 1968 and the U.S. Open in 1969 when the pros were at last accepted. In 2005 he was elevated to the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
Though he had numerous management jobs in tennis, Butch was always dreaming of founding a big-time tournament in Florida for men and women, backed by prize money. So he did in 1985, but it was a shaky wanderer in the early years. Launched at Delray it moved to Boca Raton. Heading southward – would it wind up in Havana?
Nope. He set up shop beside the ocean, on lovely Key Biscayne, and began raising a tennis complex with a 13,800 seat stadium (plus other show courts) at Crandon Park. The problems and setbacks would fill a book. But Butch and his brother, Cliff, weathered financial and political storms to establish one of the planet’s premier tournaments, luring a record of more than 230,000 afcionados this year.
This doesn’t mean tennis is losing a great producer and planner, a true lover of the game, its players and fans. Butch has had a hand in the new Buenos Aires tournament. Of course he’ll show up on the Key, but has entrusted the direction to Adam Barrett, a solid front office presence for several years.
I met Butch, a teen-ager, years ago at the Orange Bowl junior championships. He was filled with energy, and still has plenty of it.
When he announced plans for delivering his baby in 1984, I wrote that it was a big mistake, a folly. There were too many tournaments at the time, and tournaments in Florida had been flops.
How’s that for wisdom? If I’d been around then, I probably would have carried a bucket for Ponce de Leon. The first champs, in 1985 – Tim Mayotte and Martina Navratilova and the other competitors divided $1.6 million. This year the winners’ end (same for both sexes) is $ 650,500, the total pot $9 million. Some folly.