Glimpse at the big time

Wildcats?to join NCAA?Division I?field at Harris golf tournament


Escanaba Daily Press

HARRIS — A new golf course and a new golf tournament.

That combination comes together Sunday and Monday, Sept. 1-2, when Sage Run Golf Course will be the site of its first NCAA men’s collegiate invitational. Ten teams will participate in the Upper Peninsula’s initial Division 1 men’s tournament, and there will be no charge for fans to follow the action.

The Island Resort Intercollegiate at Sage Run is the brainchild of Casey VanDamme, a native of Perkins in his fourth season as director of golf for the men’s and women’s programs at South Dakota State University. The Jackrabbits are the tourney host along with the Island Resort and Casino.

After practice rounds on Saturday, Aug. 31, the 54-hole tournament begins at 8 a.m. on the event’s two days, with players starting on both nines each day. They play 36 holes Sept. 1 and 18 more on Sept. 2.

“It is a similar idea as with the Symetra Tour,” IRC general manager Tony Mancilla said of bringing a top collegiate field to a course that had a soft opening last year and is enjoying solid revenues this summer in its first full year of play. “This will be a big event and will grow every year.”

“We are receiving a lot of good feedback” from Sage Run players this season, according to Dave Douglas, director of golf for the IRC’s Sweetgrass and Sage Run courses.

“It is a neat experience. It is high quality,” he said.

“It is in immaculate condition,” he added after last year’s introduction and an off-season of tweaks and growth.

Among the players expected for the event are Bryce Douglas, son of the Sweetgrass golf director and a member of the University of Detroit golf team. He recently won the U.P. Golf Association men’s championship tournament held in Gladstone.

Another potential player is his former Gladstone High School teammate, Kyle Pouliot, who is a senior on the Northern Michigan University team that was invited to play as a Division II team.

Marquette University, which is led by junior standout Hunter Eichhorn of Carney, was invited but had a previous tourney commitment, VanDamme said.

Two nationally ranked teams will be among the entrants, No. 18 North Florida and No. 21 Liberty. Also competing will be Big 10 teams Michigan State University and Purdue University, along with East Carolina and Kentucky. VanDamme said North Carolina was also invited but replied after the field was filled.

VanDamme is no stranger to hosting big tournaments beyond the normal reach of SDSU. He has held four tournaments at top-100 course The Prairie Club near Valentine, Nebraska, that drew players such as PGA Tour stars Jon Rahm and Aaron Wise. He has also hosted tournaments in Las Vegas at Boulder Creek.

“We’re trying to get our program on the (golf) map,” said VanDamme, a former assistant at University of Tennessee. Among his recruits for the Vols was Mike Nagy of Manistique, now playing professionally on the mini tour.

“It is bizarre some of the places I’ve been,” said VanDamme, who played at Marquette and NMU after graduating from Mid Peninsula High School. “I’m treating this as a retreat, a chance to get home.”

VanDamme, who has become friends with former PGA player and current University of Oregon coach Casey Martin, said the Prairie Club event “will be the exact same thing here. The Prairie Club (tourney) has been a smashing success.”

He is excited to receive approval from Island Resort and Casino to bring the tournament here. Citing the Symetra Tour’s storied success at the Island Resort Championship at Sweetgrass, he said “the casino can do a first-class job. They are helping the teams out and they made an investment to get the teams in. It is hard to get teams to a first-year event.”

Mancilla said this event and the Symetra are excellent attractions because of the exposure they bring to the resort.

The collegians will play the entire course, which measures 7,375 yards from the back tees. They include par-4 holes of 490 yards (No. 2), 463 yards (No. 4), 473 yards (No. 6) and 482 yards (No. 15), all with elevation adjustments.

“College kids, every round they will get better” at solving the course, he said. “When you know where to hit it, this is not that tough a course. They can drive the golf ball, they have the game.”

Douglas, who is excited to watch his son compete on a course he has played frequently, agreed with Mancilla’s assessment.

“Length is not a problem for them,” he said, noting each team will bring eight players. “Once you play the course, once you understand those subtle areas, they will adjust to it.”

VanDamme enjoyed a laugh when he talked about college golfers coming to off-the-beaten-path locations such as Sage Run and The Prairie Club. “Where in the world are we?” he said of the initial response to seeing so many trees and the casino so far from places they were raised and live.

VanDamme, who has extensive golf connections in many facets of the game, said “I was on the phone a lot and I relied on my relationships” trying to fill this event.

Paul Albanese, who built Sweetgrass and helped Jerry Matthews build TimberStone in Iron Mountain, used an ice-age glacial ridge called a drumlin as a feature to fashion the demanding Sage Run. The course winds through trees and ridges, and Albanese said his inspiration for the course bunkers was Royal County Down in Northern Ireland.

“It will be interesting to see how the golf course holds up to top-flight talent and how the players react to the challenges the course presents,” Mancilla said in a news release.

Mancilla said fans will have good viewing areas near the clubhouse where they can see four greens and three tees.