It’s tee time at the Island

HARRIS – The future of the Island Resort Championship at Sweetgrass will be decided later, but this weekend’s Symetra Tour event is crucial to the process.

The third annual event begins at 7:30 a.m. Friday, with 142 professionals and two amateur exemptions competing at Sweetgrass Golf Club. Tickets are $10 and cover all three rounds and free parking is available, with eight spectator bleacher sections available. Fans are also encouraged to bring small chairs to view the action.

The Symetra Tour – Road to the LPGA is the official development tour of the LPGA and is in its 33rd year of operation. The top 10 money winners annually advance to the LPGA Tour.

All proceeds go to the YMCA Strong Kids program, Wounded Warriors Association, Salvation Army and Menominee County Animal Shelter.

It is a win-win situation for the Upper Peninsula and area, noted co-director Tony Mancilla.

“This is our third year. The tournament will run itself. It runs like clockwork,” he said, noting the integral support of 300 volunteers and sponsorship of numerous area businesses.

“We really need a big crowd. The (Hannahville) tribal council is really invested in this tournament. It is important they see excitement in the area. They want to host the tournament and the tribal council sees it as a worthy event.”

A decision on hosting future events will be made within the next month, but Mancilla said “we like the Symetra Tour. We like the players, it fits our budget. We would like to stay with them. My hopes are to stay with the Symetra Tour, but it really comes down to if the public wants to support it.”

Tourney officials, at Sweetgrass and the Tour, have been pleased with the support the first two years and every player who is asked about the event offers huge raves for the course conditions, support of Sweetgrass and tribal officials, and area residents.

“This is my favorite tournament,” third-year Sweetgrass entrant Jessi Gebhardt said during a practice round Tuesday. “They treat us like queens. They make sure we are catered to, and this is a beautiful part of the country. You feel like you are getting away, and everyone is so friendly.”

Gebhardt has virtually been adopted by Marty and Mary Kallio of Gladstone, who she has stayed with each year. “It is like I have a family up here,” she said, noting other players have stayed with the same area families all three years.

Kim Kaufman, playing in only her third event after graduating from Texas Tech University, has also seen how the players are embraced. She is staying with Bob and Jane Kleiman of Gladstone.

She was just into her opening practice round Tuesday and was enjoying the challenging course. “You need to learn where to put the ball,” she said of finding targets off the tee and hitting approach shots. “You have to manage the course. You’ve got to hit some good shots.”

Gebhardt, more familiar with the nuances of the large, undulating greens, said “this is a ball-striking course. Hitting into the greens, you have to be in the right spot, the right level, to make putts. This course has always been in great shape.”

Mancilla loves to hear how players and fans have grown to enjoy this event, and has also been to other Symetra Tour events to make sure this event remains a favorite.

“What sets our tournament aside is we have everything on site,” he said, noting many players stay in the casino hotel and the banquet facilities for two pro-ams are exceptional. In addition, the course is out the back door, not many miles away from tourney headquarters as is the case at other events.

“We are really excited for the week,” he said.

Mancilla said the success of this tournament could also help spur additional events that will directly benefit the area.

“I want to get a marquee event here,” he said, indicating a U.S. Amateur championship as an excellent choice. “We want to show we can run that kind of an event.”