Holiday amateur golf in America took on a new look last month, as two new events debuted. Both have to be considered first-year successes, with a long run in front of them if they build on their maiden efforts.
The first took place in Miami Beach the week before Christmas. The South Beach International Championship was conceived and run by Jeff Hunt, formerly the executive director of the Dixie Amateur, long a fixture of the holiday season. The host golf course for the Dixie, Heron Bay, was purchased by Canadian golf course operator ClubLink last year, and the future of the Dixie was cloudy for awhile. Wanting to ensure that there was a top-ranked amateur event in south Florida at that time of year, Hunt partnered with the city of Miami and built a new holiday event from scratch.
Reigning U.S. Amateur champion Kelly Kraft, killing time until The Masters, took the inaugural tournament, defeating a pair of Frenchmen – Clement Sordet and Gary Stal – by a shot. Kraft, who will turn pro after making his Augusta debut, concluded a memorable year that saw him take down world No. 1 Patrick Cantlay in the finals to claim the Amateur title in August at Erin Hills in Wisconsin. He also won the Trans-Miss Championship and the Texas State Amateur and is now the fifth-ranked amateur in the world.
Befitting its place as a global destination, the SBI had a very international field, with 35 of the original 165-man field hailing from outside the U.S. It was made up mostly of college players, but a dozen mid-amateurs joined the fray. Hunt’s goal is to make this one of the world’s top amateur events, and player reaction during and after the event suggests he is well on his way.
Amateur golf is not a zero-sum game in December in Florida, and so the Dixie was played as usual, and it, too, had a recognizable name in the winner’s circle. Curtis Thompson, a 19-year-old freshman at Louisiana State, better known as the younger brother of LPGA star-in-the-making Lexi Thompson, won the 2011 version. In doing so, he joined his 16-year-old sister – a Dixie champ at age 12 – to become the first brother-sister act to claim titles.
The other maiden event took place in Arizona, and it had a distinctly patriotic theme. The Patriot All-America Invitational was played after Christmas on the Gold Course at the Wigwam Resort, east of Phoenix. The Wigwam partnered with the Folds of Honor Foundation and the College Golf Coaches Association to create this 54-hole championship, and the strictly schoolboy field of 84 players wasn’t bad for a first-year event.
Invitations to the Patriot All-America were primarily targeted toward individuals earning Ping All-America honors the previous season in NCAA Divisions I, II and III, as well as the NAIA and NJCAA Divisions I and II. Additionally, a member from the United States Military, Naval and Air Force academies were invited as well as GCAA national award recipients, members of the most recent Palmer Cup Teams and AJGA All-Americans and Toyota Junior Golf World Cup participants currently enrolled in their freshman year of college.
Each participant in the tournament represented a fallen service member and received a Ping golf bag at the event’s opening ceremony with the name and branch of service of that fallen hero on the bag. Afterward, the golf bags were auctioned off with all proceeds designated for the Folds of Honor Foundation, which provides post-secondary educational scholarships for children and spouses of military service men and women killed or disabled while serving our nation.
Alabama sophomore Cory Whitsett slipped by his teammate and roommate Bobby Wyatt to take the inaugural affair. Whitsett, from Houston, shot a 5-under-par 66 in the final round after carding a 69 in round one and a 64 in round two to finish at 14-under 199, three better than Wyatt. It was his second college win in as many months, and bumped his World Amateur Golf Ranking to 24th, up from 36th.
Whitsett’s bag featured Mark A.
Forester’s name on it. Forester, a University of Alabama graduate, was a senior airman with the U.S. Air Force. He was killed at the age of 29 while conducting combat operations with his Special Forces team in Uruzgan Province, Afghanistan, on Sept. 29, 2010.
According to Arizona Golf Association Executive Director Ed Gowan, the tournament “exceeded all of our first year expectations.”
And why not? The weather was typically ideal, and there is no other elite event on the calendar to compete for players.
What was once a quiet time for competitive amateurs is no more. It’s nice to see two new offerings in two different parts of the country added to the docket.
Long may these tournaments run.