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Love put on hold for golf at LECOM Suncoast Classic in Lakewood Ranch

Side of Ranch: Jay Heater

Tara's Justin Kristich, the tournament director for the LECOM Suncoast Classic, said everything is on schedule for the tournament, which hosts its first round on Feb. 14 at Lakewood National.
Tara's Justin Kristich, the tournament director for the LECOM Suncoast Classic, said everything is on schedule for the tournament, which hosts its first round on Feb. 14 at Lakewood National.
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It's a given Tara's Carley Kristich won't be seeing much of her husband, Justin, on Valentine's Day.

That isn't going to be a big problem in the Kristich household this year because Carley understands Justin has some big responsibilities.

Justin Kristich is the tournament director of the first LECOM Suncoast Classic, a new Tour event for professional golfers at Lakewood National Golf Club in Lakewood Ranch. While the event runs Feb. 11-17, the actual first round of the tournament is Feb. 14. His employer is Global Golf Management.

"We will have a nice belated Valentine's Day dinner," Justin said with a laugh.

Jay Heater
Jay Heater

Hopefully they will have plenty to smile about.

Justin is the former assistant general manager for the Bradenton Marauders, which hired him in 2010. He is used to working long hours while selling athletic events to the community.

Presenting a golf tournament is a new venture for him, though, and he is learning on the job. When you get a couple of thousand spectators on a golf course not used to hosting such a crowd, you had better know where to put the portable toilets.

"The biggest surprise for me so far is just all the little things you need to do," he said. "You only can plan so much."

A big part of his job in the tournament's first year will be educating the public about the event, which is kind of the minor leagues of the PGA Tour. This is a chance to see some former PGA Tour winners who have stumbled and now are working their way back to the main tour, while also checking out some future stars.

It takes a lot of money to host such an event, but Kristich said the inaugural tournament is in good shape. LECOM announced it had signed a five-year contract to be the title sponsor during a press conference on Wednesday at Lakewood National Golf Club. Kristich already had lined up major sponsors such as Bealls, Synovus and Conditioned Air. Lakewood Ranch Medical Center will be the practice area sponsor.

Although the Tour might seem to be an obscure commodity, Kristich said that isn't the case in the Lakewood Ranch area.

"Part of this first year is that we are in the education process," he said. "But luckily for us, we live in a community that is golf conscious. People are aware of the ( tour."

While sponsorship dollars will drive the event, it helps to host a good crowd. Kristich said historical numbers show Tour events tend to host 10,000 to 15,000 in the first year of an event on the low end and 60,000 on the high end.

"We are hoping for a minimum of 20,000 (spectators)," he said.

The tournament only costs $10 a day or $30 for a pass for the week, so Lakewood Ranch golf fans are being presented with a can't miss opportunity.

Kristich said the event is being designed for golf fans and non-golf fans alike and will include bar areas, discounted drinks when the players make birdies, vendor booths and various attractions. Minors 17 and under will be admitted free with a ticketed parent or guardian.

Another way to catch some action would be to volunteer. The tournament already has 200 volunteers, many from the new Lakewood National community, signed up and needs another 150. Synovus is sponsoring the volunteers, who will receive a goody bag that includes a hat, shirt, a Tervis tumbler and a pass for a round at Lakewood National. Kristich said volunteers are asked to work at least two four-hour shifts if possible.

Although everything seems to be going well, Kristich said he won't get any real feedback about the event until it is done.

"We're starting from the ground up and everything is so new," he said. "But this event is something that we can hang our hat on."

He said some sponsors are waiting to see "everything in action," before deciding whether to get involved.

The tournament will not be televised this year, and Kristich said it would take about a $500,000 budget to make that happen. As the tournament is played the first time, he said social media will be important in terms of spreading the word. Eventually, he could see the Suncoast Classic becoming one of the biggest events on the Tour.

"The course is outstanding and you couldn't have a better host area," he said.

He will have the same Valentine's Day problems in the future (the Tour has signed a five-year contract for the event), but as he said, "Year Two will be easier."


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