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LECOM Suncoast Classic aces test run in Lakewood Ranch

Side of Ranch: Jay Heater

Emma Piper, the tournament services manager for the Tour congratulates Synovus Vice President Kent Lane for a successful LECOM Suncoast Classic. Synovus sponsored the volunteers.
Emma Piper, the tournament services manager for the Tour congratulates Synovus Vice President Kent Lane for a successful LECOM Suncoast Classic. Synovus sponsored the volunteers.
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Since 1997, the PGA Tour had a slogan of "These guys are good."

The slogan, however, was retired in 2018.

Perhaps the Tour could pick it up.

On March 4 at Gold Coast Eagle Distributing in Lakewood Ranch, a couple hundred of the 439 volunteers who worked the first LECOM Suncoast Classic golf tournament at Lakewood National Golf Club enjoyed an appreciation party thrown by the tournament.

Jay Heater
Jay Heater

One of the main topics of conversation was the quality of the players who competed Feb. 14-17.

On the Saturday and Sunday of the tournament, I worked as a volunteer myself, measuring the drives off the tee at No. 10 (usually the No. 1 hole at Lakewood National but the course was "flipped" for the tournament). The shortest drive of the two days was 304 yards by eventual tourney champion Mark Hubbard on Sunday.

Obviously, he was laying up.

The players had a wind advantage on the par-5 hole, which goes downhill after about a 300-yard drive. Still, I kept measuring 340- and 350-yard smashes, on average. The longest drive of the two days was a 390-yard bomb by runner-up Maverick McNealy, who turned to me, smiled and flexed his muscles after I told him it was the longest drive of the tournament.

These guys really were good, even if the is considered a feeder system for the PGA Tour.

It was something Tournament Director Justin Kristich believes will help him attract sponsors for the 2020 tournament.

When Kristich was lining up sponsors for the inaugural event, he said he could only verbalize his product to potential sponsors. Now he has video.

With LECOM signing a five-year contract as title sponsor, Kristich said the tournament is on solid financial ground. It had a $550,000 purse and the winner pulled down $99,000. Now Kristich can concentrate on making it bigger and better.

"You've got to remember we made the announcement about the tournament in June and we didn't announce a title sponsor until January," he said. "We are in an enviable spot now."

Ticket sales for the first year were announced at 17,500 but Kristich said more than 25,000 tickets were issued.

"Everything far exceeded our expectations," he said. "We drew way more people on the Thursday and Friday of the tournament than we expected."

While Kristich said he doesn't need to "reinvent the wheel" for 2020, some things will be tweaked.

He wasn't sure how fans would "flow" through the golf course and eventually discovered a lot more fans like to walk the entire course than expected. That means fans will see more concessions at various spots around the course along with more activities and more public seating.

That will go with the huge hospitality area that was around the closing hole in the first event.

Kristich said tournament planners already have identified good spots for public viewing on the Nos. 11, 16 and 17 holes, and perhaps another hospitality structure at one of those sites.

Lakewood National Golf Club handled all the concessions and Kristich said all the feedback from the fans was positive.

"They knocked it out of the park," he said.

When fans purchased tickets, they were asked for an email address which the tournament will use to solicit feedback. Kristich said the players loved the course and couldn't believe it wasn't private.

Tournament parking will be reevaluated next year as more homes are built at Lakewood National. Kristich said a possible agreement with the county to shuttle fans from Premier Sports Campus could be a possibility.

Volunteer participation was far more than expected, so much that Kristich said the possibility exists they might have to cap the number of volunteers next year. "I think we will have a waiting list," he said.

While next year's dates were announced as Feb. 13-16 in 2020, Kristich said those dates are not yet official.

He said he signed up between 30 and 40 sponsors for the inaugural event, including Synovus, which sponsored the volunteers.

Synovus Vice President Kent Lane said it was a great investment for his company.

"Not a lot of people know about Synovus," Lane said. "This is about brand recognition and this was huge for us. It was phenomenal exposure."

Lane said Synovus was most interested in developing relationships in the Sarasota and Manatee counties area and he thought that investment was realized.

Behind Lane, the volunteers were sharing stories from the tournament about the Web-com players and how cordial they were to the volunteers.

"I worked with 439 of the friendliest, most happy volunteers," said Emma Piper, the tournament services manager for the Tour. "Now we ware collecting reports about what we could do better."


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