ORLANDO, FLORIDA | We may have discovered the most crucial meeting of PGA Merchandise Show week.
For the past 33 years, Lake Nona Golf & Country Club has hosted what is humbly referred to as the Club Professional Invitational. Held prior to the merchandise show each January, the tournament includes the top 100 club professionals from the finest private facilities around the world.
There are no television cameras, no gallery ropes, no agents or equipment reps walking the range with their wares. But for those inside the industry, this is the Rolls-Royce of networking. You are playing in a tournament with the greatest collection of club professionals anywhere. If a young man or woman prayed for the opportunity to get into the business under extraordinary leadership, this setting would be nirvana.
For a small group in a niche industry, this is the highlight of their year in terms of playing the game. But that’s only if they get into the field. More than 600 invitations are sent and if you don’t respond within 48 hours, there’s a good chance you are headed to the waitlist.
Warning e-mails come cascading in from fellow head pros to urge their friends to confirm their spot. Group texts are started in desperate situations where time is running out. It’s like receiving a wedding invitation from the royal family.
“The e-mail came out on Sunday night and I was away so I couldn’t respond until Tuesday,” said a remorseful Mike Summa, the head professional at the Stanwich Club in Greenwich, Conn. “I ended up third on the waitlist. I was heartbroken. It feels like I just got hit with a right by Mike Tyson. I can’t miss this event.”
Summa had skipped only one of the previous 32 tournaments and that was because of an illness in the family. He luckily earned a spot in this year’s field when a couple of other players couldn’t make it.
So why does this little pro-pro event with a 1 p.m. shotgun start mean so much? It’s not the prize money. The winners get a couple hundred bucks. And although the caliber of play is admired, those who participate are generally not among those who vie for the PGA Professional Championship title.
The reason for coming each year to the event with such enthusiasm has a great deal to do with Gregor Jamieson, the longtime director of golf at Lake Nona who started the tournament more than 30 years ago. Jamieson, the Scottish son of a Turnberry club pro, ambles around the range holding court, facilitating the networking, never passing up an opportunity to bond with someone in the field. Participants routinely cite recent golf trips they have taken where they were able to play at a certain course because of a connection they forged during Jamieson’s tournament.
Jamieson has coached Retief Goosen, Thomas Bjørn and a host of others, but those at the Club Professional Invitational swear this tournament should be near the top of his achievements.
Robert Anderson, the director of golf at Monterey Peninsula Country Club in Pebble Beach, Calif., owes the start of his golf career to Jamieson. In 1999, Anderson asked to spend some time at the tournament. He needed to see whether a career in golf was for him.
“Mr. Jamieson came around and introduced me to every single golf professional in the field,” Anderson remembers. “I left with a lot of contacts and a couple of interviews. That was the beginning for me. Now every year I come. I still leave with six to eight contacts.”
This event, a glorified outing, really, was born out of the ethos of Lake Nona. When the course came to fruition in 1986, the owners sought to be friends of the game. While their course would be private, they intended to help golf whenever and wherever possible.
That would mean hosting the inaugural Solheim Cup in 1990, the World Cup of Golf in 1993 and four editions of the Tavistock Cup matches with Isleworth Golf & Country Club. However, their most important decision may have been inviting the best club professionals for a stroke-play tournament.
“We knew our club would be pretty young and it’s hard to compete with more established places,” Jamieson said. “So inviting the most influential people in the industry for the tournament was really an attempt to get our name out there. We wanted respect.”
The Club Professional Invitational started as a three-day event with a practice round and 36 holes of individual stroke play. Head professionals were already down in the Orlando area for the PGA Merchandise Show, so why wouldn’t they play golf with some of the most recognized names in the business?
In the early years, Lake Nona’s reputation spread through word of mouth. It became a hotbed for elite touring professionals (25 of them currently call the club home) when Nick Price, Nick Faldo and instructor David Leadbetter became members. There have been well over a dozen major championships won out of the club, including the 2018 U.S. Women’s Open, won by Ariya Jutanugarn.
Outstanding practice facilities, an impeccable golf course and service to match, along with being just 10 minutes and two turns from the Orlando airport grew the club’s reputation. Jamieson notes that the club’s entire membership consists of 24 different nationalities. “I don’t know of another club that has that kind of diversity,” Jamieson said.
Jamieson has coached Retief Goosen, Thomas Bjørn and a host of others, but those at the Club Professional Invitational swear this tournament should be near the top of his achievements. It’s one thing to bring people together, but it’s another to bring such knowledgeable and important members of the golf community together.
“It may be my favorite golf day of the entire year,” says Larry Dornisch, the head professional at Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio. “Even if I didn’t go to the merchandise show, I would still fly down here just to play. Gregor is an icon in the golf industry. This is as good of a golf operation as there is in the entire country.”
The Club Professional Invitational, an event that could be the most exclusive and important meeting of the week that almost nobody knows about.
Danny Brassil of Old Head Golf Links in Ireland says it best.
“I get more out of today and tonight than the rest of the week combined. It’s the greatest networking opportunity there is.”
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Gregor Jamieson readies the participants in the 2019 Club Professionals Invitational at Lake Nona Country Club. Photo: Sean Fairholm
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