(CORRECTION — An earlier version of this story said the event has a contract with Lakewood National through the 2026 season. Actually, the contract with Lakewood National runs through 2023. LECOM extended its sponsorship of the tournament through 2026)
Opened in 2016, the Commander course at Lakewood National Golf Club might have been a little, well, green when it hosted the Korn Ferry Tour's LECOM Suncoast Classic for the first time in 2019.
Jamie McCrosky, the superintendent and head of agronomy at Lakewood National for ICON Management, called the course a little "rough" during the first Suncoast Classic.
"I would say, going into Year 1, the fairways were still firm," McCrosky said. "They did not have as much cushion as they have now. And the greens were rock hard that first year. These greens are more receptive now, and they are at the tour standard. Of course these (pros) can top it on a dime."
McCrosky said the fairways lacked definition to clearly show where the fairways stopped and the rough began. He said that is not an issue now.
Of course, those factors couldn't hurt the course's reputation because it didn't have one yet.
"In 2019, it was like, 'Who are these guys,'" Suncoast Classic Tournament Director Justin Kristich said. "It was this course in the middle of nowhere."
Lakewood Ranch, the No. 1-selling, multi-generational, master-planned community in the U.S., is certainly somebody these days. Lakewood National Golf Club has come right along as well.
GolfPass, owned by NBC, is a golf subscription service which offers instruction, equipment bargains, free rounds of golf and discounts at courses and clubs. It collected 320,000 reviews in 2021 to rank the top 50 golf courses in the U.S. according to value, conditions, layout, pace of play, staff friendliness and off-course amenities.
The No. 1-ranked course in America? The Commander course at Lakewood National Golf Club, owned by Lennar.
GolfPass called the Commander course "The cure for the common real estate development golf course."
It said the course, designed by the Arnold Palmer Design Company, led the way in condition and friendliness.
"It's astonishing," McCrosky said of the ranking. "It is very flattering, considering the courses that are available."
Consider the famous Indian Wells course (California) ranked 27th and the renowned Edgewood Tahoe course in Stateline, Nevada was 32nd.
"You always want to be able to brag about your course," Kristich said.
Nick Campbell, the director of golf at Lakewood National Golf Club, doesn't mind bragging a bit.
He said the Commander course is now "fully matured" from the time it hosted its first Korn Ferry event.
But he said many factors helped the course rise in the eyes of those who filled out the GolfPass reviews, including the off-course tiki bar.
Now costing $139 a round, the course has exploded in popularity. It hosted more than 50,000 rounds in 2021, with another 50,000 rounds on Lakewood National's Piper course. The Piper course, was ranked No. 4 on the GolfPass list of its top 50 public courses.
Piper has just begun its third year of existence and McCrosky said, while a gem, it isn't quite the level of Commander. He said the builders went all out on Commander, spending $7 million. Piper was a $3.8 million project.
The two courses' popularity — they currently do a combined 460 rounds a day and are booked solid from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. — eventually might make it hard to host tournaments such as the Suncoast Classic. Lakewood National has sold 1,325 of its planned 1,556 units and the golf courses, which have been available to the public to draw potential home buyers, is expected to go totally private in the next year or two.
Campbell said the Korn Ferry Tour's notoriety has brought buyers to Lakewood National since the tournament's debut in 2019, but with most of the homes sold and the course full, the benefits have changed.
He said many of the residents love the Korn Ferry Tour and they enjoy volunteering, which gives them an opportunity to be involved. Of course, other members worry about access. Campbell said Lakewood National will always keep the Piper Course open to the members as long as it runs the Korn Ferry event.
Kristich, who said 2022 marks a return to normalcy, said the Lakewood Ranch continues to embrace the Suncoast Classic. Last year, with pandemic restrictions, he said the volunteer force was down to 350. This year, he has more than 500 volunteers already signed up. "It's nice when the Canadian border opens up," he said.
Less COVID restrictions will make a difference in most aspects of running the tournament.
"Generally, we are back to pre-COVID levels in terms of sponsors, ticket sales, our Fan Zone and our number of volunteers," Kristich said. "The tournament was harder to manage last year with those COVID variables. We didn't know what was going on … there was a lot more unknowns."
The Fan Zone, which will offer 26 vendors this year, even above the 24 in 2020, is one of Kristich's favorite aspects of the tournament. It leads from the entrance point of the tournament to the course.
"Tito's is back," Kristich said of the vodka vendor. "When they weren't able to be here last year, I was getting a lot of questions of whether they would be back. Tito's is making signature drinks for (the tournament) this year and they will have cornhole and other games."
Many of the vendors who participated in 2020 are back in 2022. Kristich said even when they couldn't have a vendor booth in 2021 because of the pandemic, they found ways to stay involved in the tournament."
Kristich is a big fan of food trucks and those will be back in force offering gourmet hot dogs, pizza, barbecue items and jerk chicken.
While draft beer was sold on the course before last year's tourney, they will stick to canned beer in 2022. Besides the food items in the Fan Zone, each nine-hole section will have two food booths on the course.
Kristich, who lives at Lakewood National, said the VIP area around the 18th green, which is the course's main viewing area, is sold out. At the No. 9 hole, Lakewood National residents will have an area where they can sit in their golf carts and watch the action.
He expects more than 20,000 fans this season, which would match the attendance in 2020. The pandemic-influenced tournament fell to 14,000 fans last year.
As far as the course, Kristich said most of the maturing has had more to do with aesthetics.
"It's much more about landscaping," he said. "The homes are full capacity now and the course is settled. It's more of a visual thing.
"But it's still a favorable course for golfers with wide-open fairways and tough green complexes. Then you obviously have the wind."