Symetra Tour will stay at Island

HARRIS – The only professional golf tournament in Michigan or Wisconsin will be held at Sweetgrass Golf Club for the next three years.

That was confirmed Monday when the Hannahville Indian Community tribal council approved a new three-year contract with the Symetra Tour, which is the road to the LPGA Tour in women’s golf. The Island Resort Championship at Sweetgrass completed its first three-year contract June 30 when rookie Kim Kaufman won the title on the first hole of a playoff.

“I’m elated,” Tribal Chairman Ken Meshigaud said as the council took a lunch break Monday. “This highlights the community in a good light, locally, regionally and nationally.

“I am excited that the Symetra Tour stepped forward and asked us to do another three-year commitment.”

Tourney co-director Tony Mancilla, who made an extensive presentation to the tribal council with the help of a financial picture provided by chief finance officer Scott Herioux, shared Meshigaud’s excitement.

“Sweetgrass is the star here,” said Mancilla, who told the council there are more than 18,000 courses in the United States and only 112 host professional tournaments. LPGA and PGA events have been held in Michigan and Wisconsin in recent years, but there is not another scheduled event other than Sweetgrass until 2017 when the men’s U.S. Open comes to Erin Hills, near Milwaukee.

“Having the (Symetra) players here brings excitement. You can really feel it,” said Mancilla. “We’re excited working with all our business partners and all of our volunteers.”

Herioux said co-operation of presenting sponsor Delta County Chamber of Commerce and major sponsors OSF St. Francis and YMCA of Delta County is a big reason for the event’s success.

“It is an example of what can be accomplished when people work together and how partners can help the whole area,” Herioux said during the lunch break.

Mancilla told the council “the value of your tournament is you are being promoted heavily” beyond the immediate area compared to publicity generated by various shows offered bi-monthly by big-name entertainers in the Island Resort and Casino auditorium.

Mancilla, the tribal attorney, negotiated the new contract with Symetra Tour officials in the past month. The new contract provides exclusive Symetra territorial rights for a 200-mile radius, a tour requirement that a 4-handicap or better is required for an amateur exemption has been increased to an 8-handicap, and 32 teams can play in each of the two pro-ams rather than the normal 30, enabling 64 Symetra players to participate from the 144-player field.

He said discussion is also underway about getting a later tourney date, when better weather will provide even better conditions for the tournament and the highly acclaimed course.

Sheryl Fish, manager of Tournament Business Affairs for the tour, said in a telephone call from Daytona Beach Monday the tourney is still planned for the last week of June but could be adjusted if potential new tournaments are added.

“It could move back in late July but only if our tourney schedule allows for it,” said Fish. “A change must fit logically with good flow geographically because all the girls drive. We have the possibility of playing more tournaments in the Midwest, which would give us the possibility of moving not only the Island Resort Championship but other events.”

She said players are informed of the early tourney schedule around Christmas and the 2014 schedule would be confirmed in late January or early February, with the tour starting late February. “We try to wait as long as possible. Our goal is to get past 20 tournaments. We have a lot of irons in the fire.”

She declined to discuss possible additions other than indicating chances exist in Michigan, Indiana and Illinois. “We have a chunk we are looking at in June and July,” she said, indicating the possible additions could impact the date at Sweetgrass. “We try not to finalize the schedule too quickly.”

The tribal council also approved increasing the tourney prize fund to $125,000, an increase of $10,000. “We’re going to try to build that, hopefully bump that up a little bit,” Mancilla said later. He informed the council the top tourney prize payout is $150,000 and he is hoping the Sweetgrass event, which is regarded by many players as the best stop on the 15-event circuit, can raise the prize fund near that top figure.

“We provide the best tournament on tour but we don’t have the biggest purse. We are trying to get a bigger purse,” said Mancilla.

Fish said Monday the larger purse will get the attention of the players. “It is an elevated purse that is above the tour standard and puts players who win higher on the money list.”

Fish said the news from Hannahville was great to hear. “We are very excited to come back to the Upper Peninsula and the Island Resort and Sweetgrass. The course is one of the best we play and the players love making the trip and the community embraces us so well.”

Mancilla told the council “you are marketing the resort and the course” by hosting the Symetra Tour event. “You are promoting the whole package. The resort and the golf go together.”

He also told the council Symetra officials are working on a possible three-course event of tournaments sponsored by various branches of the Potawatomi Nation.

Meshigaud said the tournament has provided a huge benefit to the Hannahville Indian Community. “This shows the community we can put together this kind of event,” he said, pride evident in his sparkling eyes and wide smile. “I think the adjustment of people’s attitudes to the Hannahville community” has been an important benefit.

“It shows what we are and what we are capable of doing. You can’t put a price on that,” he said.

Mancilla, speaking after his presentation, repeated a goal he has professed to The Daily Press previously. “My goal is one day to get a U.S. Amateur, a major U.S.G.A. event here. We’ve got the infra-structure, we’ve got the ability to do that,” he said.

Sweetgrass director of golf Dave Douglas was happy to hear of the approval when he learned of the decision in his office about 10 minutes later.

“The best benefit is the exposure for the golf course,” Douglas said. “If the players love the golf course, like they do, other people see that and hear that. We get a lot of people from the area come to watch (the tourney) and they look for golf rates and packages.

“This event is kind of neat for the community. It is nice the casino is willing to help (with the sponsors). This gives the area an opportunity to watch professional golf.”

It was also pointed out during the meeting that the tournament gives the Hannahville community a platform to display the vast skills of the talented staff at the golf course, casino, hotel and restaurants and to showcase everything that is good about the tribe.

It has also brought excellent golf talent to the area. Two of the past tourney entrants were selected to the Solheim Cup team Monday, Lizetta Salas for the United States and Jodi Ewart Shadoff for Europe. The Solheim Cup is Aug 16-18 at Colorado Golf Club in Parker, Col.

In addition, Taylor Collins played in the last Sweetgrass event after winning Golf Channel’s Big Break Mexico.

The top 10 money winners on the Symetra Tour each year automatically earn their LPGA Tour cards, and many of them have played in this tournament, which has generated a big buzz in the past three years.