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Side of Ranch

Director gears up for 2024 LECOM Suncoast Classic

Justin Kristich says increasing the seating is a priority for the Lakewood Ranch event.

Scott Gutschewski holds up the 2023 LECOM Suncoast Classic trophy.
Scott Gutschewski holds up the 2023 LECOM Suncoast Classic trophy.
Photo by Ryan Kohn
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For Justin Kristich, it is a good problem to have.

The director of the LECOM Suncoast Classic, Kristich has to figure out a way to provide more seating on the closing holes of the Lakewood National Golf Course.

Yes, more seating.

Kristich is now in his sixth year of running the Suncoast Classic, which wouldn't be a big deal if this were a PGA Tour event and you could depend on stars like Rory McIlroy or Justin Spieth to show up every year. 

The Suncoast Classic is no longer the new thing in Lakewood Ranch. Since it was played the first time in 2019, our area has hosted a World Golf Championship event in 2021 at the Concession, and a World Champions Cup (senior) event, also at the Concession, in December. The LPGA Drive On Championship was held in January at Bradenton Country Club. As residents, we are being exposed to the sport's highest level.

Does that diminish the power of the Korn Ferry Tour?

Apparently not.

LECOM has signed up for three more years as the event's host sponsor. Lakewood National has signed up for another three years as the tournament host course. 

And Kristich pushes forward, expecting area golf fans to pack the place from April 18-21. He noted last week that the Wednesday pro-am for the tournament is two groups from selling out. Another pro-am is being held the Monday before the event and that will be a sellout as well. The community has embraced the event more than ever.

It's interesting stuff considering it's place in the sport. You are watching some of the world's top golfers, but you don't know who they are yet. Beyong Hun An, the winner in 2022, currently is 10th on the PGA Tour money list with $2,167,717. Mark Hubbard, the 2019 winner is 30th at $1,064,849.

When they won in Lakewood Ranch, they were like Minor League Baseball players, faceless athletes wearing the same laundry.

Fortunately for Kristich, Korn Ferry Tour players can get up close with the fans, and the volunteers, and show off their personalities. There is less anonymity.

But Kristich knows he can't count on the power of the athletes alone. He has to find attractions that make the most out of every event, and I stress "event." I am a huge golf fan, but I would admit that one iron shot landing on the green looks pretty much like another. It's a different feeling if you have a rooting interest. If you don't, you had better be having a good time.

That could mean food and drinks, activities or being able to get up close to the athletes on the 17th and 18th holes.

When my son was about 7 years old, I took him once to a San Francisco Spiders minor league hockey game. We had no idea who any of the players were, but we landed some box seats right on the ice. After an hour of watching players banging into the boards right in front of our seats, and a couple of fights, and dodging pucks that hit the glass, we felt like millionaires in a luxury box. It was a great sports experience.

At the 17th and 18th holes at the Suncoast Classic, you can cozy up to the green and feel like a VIP. You start realizing that the players are competing for a $1 million purse, and the pressure increases with each passing group. The tournament has a history of being decided on the final hole.

Then add the social aspect. Kristich has made sure those closing holes are somewhat of a party, as businesses book space to get as close as they can, and yet have an experience similar to the Sarasota Polo Club's tailgating. Are those at polo actually watching the polo? I guess you could debate that one. At Lakewood National, the buzz in the crowd makes you wonder if some of those in attendance, perhaps with a few adult beverages under their belt, know that players might be changing their entire lives with one putt.

Sure, it's a little noisy in a sport where one peep is one peep too many, but overall, the players appreciate the atmosphere. It's not Phoenix (Hole 16 at the Waste Management Open) but it's more rowdy than what most would consider normal for a golf tournament, and it is fun.

"It's a fine line," Kristich said. "But we don't want a strict atmosphere."

Not far from No. 18 is a Fun Zone, which Kristich said he is ramping for the upcoming tourney and adding a golf simulator.

"We want families to be able to enjoy a full day," he said.

So here are a few notes from the tournament, in case you plan to attend.

*Volunteer positions are filling up. The tournament signed up 450 volunteers last year, and this year the target goal is 475. All kinds of positions (marshals, hospitality, security, ticket takers, shuttles, driving range attendants) still are open, although 275 volunteers have taken spots. It costs $40 to volunteer, but you get a hat, t-shirt, a free round of golf, and lunch and/or dinner depending on your shift. Volunteers are asked to work a minimum of three shifts that could last five to six hours depending on the task.

*There is a need for ShotLink operators. These are volunteers who will be working green-side. Once the players hit their shots on the green, a ShotLink operator will go on to the green and line up their device (like a golf range finder) with the ball and the hole. The device will record distance of each putt. Kristich said the PGA Tour records how many feet of putts each golfer has made during an event, and the Korn Ferry Tour would like to keep pace. Volunteers don't need any experience as instruction will be provided before the event.

*Pro-ams are filling up quickly. If you want to play in a pro-am, sign up now as both events are almost filled.

*The Lakewood National Clubhouse will be in use. For the first time, the clubhouse, with construction completed in the last year, is available to the players, who will have locker room facilities and a dining room. Kristich said that improvement puts the event in the "upper echelon" of Korn Ferry Tour events.

*Ticket prices remain the same. It's still $20 per round with specials for military personnel, veterans, kids, teachers, first responders and more.

For more information, for tickets or to sign up to volunteer, go to



Jay Heater

Jay Heater is the managing editor of the East County Observer. Overall, he has been in the business more than 41 years, 26 spent at the Contra Costa Times in the San Francisco Bay area as a sportswriter covering college football and basketball, boxing and horse racing.

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