Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

LECOM Suncoast Classic director optimistic fans will be allowed to 2021 Lakewood Ranch event.

LECOM Suncoast Classic hopes pandemic eases to allow fans back into pro event.

Fans will have plenty of space at Lakewood National, but the bleachers behind No. 18 likely won't be used in 2021.
Fans will have plenty of space at Lakewood National, but the bleachers behind No. 18 likely won't be used in 2021.
  • East County
  • News
  • Share

From Oct. 1-4, LECOM Suncoast Classic Director Justin Kristich won't have his focus locked on Lakewood Ranch, as usual.

Instead, he will have an eye on Savannah, Ga.

During that time, Savannah will be hosting the Korn Ferry Tour's Savannah Golf Championship, which during the pandemic will allow a limited number of fans to attend the event.

Kristich is busy planning the third LECOM Suncoast Classic Feb. 18-21 at Lakewood National Golf Course in Lakewood Ranch. He knows if the PGA Tour and its developmental tour, the Korn Ferry Tour, can allow fans back into tournaments, it will be a positive sign for fan attendance at Lakewood National in February.

The week after the Savannah Golf Championship, the Korn Ferry Tour heads to Orlando Oct. 8-11 for the Orange County National Championship. Kristich said it is likely he will attend the event in Orlando to see how tournament committees are handling safety precautions.

"Hopefully, we will have a somewhat normal event," Kristich said of having fans in Lakewood Ranch. "We haven't had an actual green light from the PGA Tour. But Savannah is having a limited number of fans and Orlando could have more. We're projecting, although we can't say for sure, a fairly normal allotment of spectators."

Kristich said he will use the Korn Ferry tournaments leading up to Lakewood Ranch to note good practices in social distancing or safety guidelines.

"We will see how Savannah handles the fans they let in," he said. "The tour is taking small, incremental steps."

LECOM Trustee Tom Wedzik said as the main tournament sponsor, along with being the nation's largest medical college in terms of students and applications, LECOM is working with Kristich and his staff to do everything in their power to ensure a safe environment at the tournament.

"If things go as planned, we are going to have fans, hospitality tents and a pro am," Wedzik said. "But we will take every precaution. We have talking with Justin (Kristich) for several months. We will practice everything required by the PGA Tour. Of course, the hope is this will be behind us more."

Wedzik said LECOM will provide "visibility by our students" during the tournament to get fans to abide by social distancing and safety precautions. Kristich said the LECOM Suncoast Classic will have a similar amount of volunteers to last year (539), he expects a certain number of volunteers will be focused on keeping safety guidelines in place.

Professional golfers such as Mike Weir drew approximately 20,000 fans to Lakewood National in February.
Professional golfers such as Mike Weir drew approximately 20,000 fans to Lakewood National in February.

Even if social distancing guidelines are still in place, Kristich said Lakewood National has the space to allow fans to social distance. Last year, the tournament drew approximately 20,000 fans over four days and 17,000 fans the first year. He said fans will receive very clear tournament signage about safety precautions.

Perhaps more worrisome for Kristich is the possible repercussions of not having fans. The LECOM Suncoast Classic is not televised so its revenue mostly is generated from sponsors and attendance. While LECOM is entering the third year of a five-year contract to be the signature sponsor, many other sponsors are waiting to decide if they want to sign up with the tournament.

"The process has been slow," Kristich said of attracting sponsors. "It's been the same all around the country in terms of event business. It's tougher to engage sponsors because most of it now is over the phone and on Zoom. Luckily golf has been considered essential, so we have been able to meet sponsors on the course, but not everyone is a golfer."

He said possible sponsors have been coming forward the past six weeks, but those people aren't sure what their budget will look like going into the new year.

Whether or not those sponsors come into the fold, Kristich said the tournament will take place with the contracts it has in place.

"We will maneuver our way through," he said.

Kristich said Elliott Falcione, the executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, calculated the tournament as having a $4 million economic impact on the area in February.

While it is likely the tournament will have hospitality areas, serving food and drinks, around the 18th green as it has the first two years, fan bleachers are most likely out in 2021. 

"The hospitality area will have tables, sitting 6 feet apart," he said. "We will see what the recommended numbers are. Bleachers are something we will not be able to do. We need to avoid packing people into a condensed area. We will be encouraging people to bring their own chairs to to walk around."

More shared hospitality locations might be spread around the course for the coming year.

In the 2020 LECOM Suncoast Classic, the tourney hosted a Fan Zone that was made up of exhibitor games and activities. Kristich received excellent feedback from the area, but that might not be possible in 2021.

Fortunately, he still has time to make decisions on key elements, many which can wait until after Jan. 1.

"We can work up until Jan. 1 and then pivot," he said. "But we can't sell something we're not sure of."

One thing he is sure of — the LECOM wants to build its reputation, not tear it down.

One thing the LECOM Suncoast Classic won't allow this year will be for area residents to host players and caddies in their home. The program was a win-win for both players and the hosts but now the PGA Tour wants to keep players "in the bubble," keeping them at two or three hotels. Kristich hopes the program will be back in 2022.

"You never want to be identified as a super spreader," he said. "But golf has gotten up and running enough we can make case studies now. We know we can put on a safe tournament for the players, the caddies, the volunteers, and now the spectators. We will have a plan in place, and we will have the PGA Tour behind us."

Volunteer recruitment will begin in October.


Latest News