By MICHAEL GRAFF
In mid-September, still five weeks before hosting one of the premier college golf tournaments in the country, UNC Greensboro coach Terrance Stewart spent a Friday morning putting together gift packages for sponsors. It’s the little things that have made the Bridgestone Golf Collegiate such a big success.
Scheduled for Oct. 23-24 at Forest Oaks Country Club, the Bridgestone again will bring a strong field to the Triad, including four teams that were ranked in the top 50 of Golfweek’s final rankings last year.
Now in its sixth year, the tournament not only provides top schools with a great venue to close out the fall season, it has boosted the profile of UNC Greensboro men’s golf, providing Stewart and the Spartans national credibility – which has, in turn, brought better players to the program. It’s a chain of events that Stewart envisioned when he set out to create the tournament in 2005.
“If you want to build your golf schedule, getting into the better tournaments, you need to host an event that all the other teams want to come to,” said Stewart, now in his 10th season with the Spartans. “If you have a great event, that’s going to help you get into other great events. When I was hired 10 years ago, I learned quickly that we needed to create an exceptional college event that could improve our schedule.”
In order to do that, Stewart said, he needed to be sure of a number of things: He had to have the right golf course, the right dates on the calendar, enough sponsorship, and then take care of details for everybody.
He knew right where to go for the golf course. Built in the 1960s by Ellis Maples, Forest Oaks played host to the PGA Tour from 1977 to 2007. The Wyndham Championship has since moved to Sedgefield Country Club, but Forest Oaks still shines just outside of downtown Greensboro. After a redesign in 2003 by Davis Love III’s design group, the course can now play to 7,400 if needed.
And it’s even more pristine and attractive in the North Carolina fall. The Bridgestone was played in April in its first two years, but in the third year Stewart moved the event to October, an ideal spot on the final weekend of the fall NCAA season.
“Each year there are about 300 golf tournaments just at the Division I level,” Stewart said. “There are many events that are on the same dates. We felt like October in North Carolina is the best time to play golf; all of our golf courses are in the best shape then.”
This year’s 14-team field for the two-day, 54-hole tournament includes four teams from the Big 10, three from the SEC, and two from the ACC, including the University of North Carolina. Georgia Tech won the tournament in 2009 and Duke won in 2008. Louisville is a two-time winner (2005 and 2007), and Lamar was the champion in 2006, the final year the tournament was played in the spring.
The nationwide interest has gotten so strong that Stewart has had to deny a number of top-quality schools to keep the field manageable.
He knows what it’s like to be on the other side. For the first four years of his tenure at UNC-Greensboro, which is a member of the Southern Conference, he was turned away from numerous tournaments while trying to fill the schedule. Now, given the success of the Bridgestone, more doors are open. And having that better schedule has helped Stewart recruit better players.
The Spartans’ roster features the most recent North Carolina Junior champions – Robert Hoadley (2007) of Southern Pines, Justin Clement (2008) of Lexington and Andy Knox (2009) of Cary. Knox, who was the Carolina Golf Association’s top-ranked junior golfer last year, was recently ranked 10th in Golfweek’s listing of top 20 “freshmen to watch” around the country.
“The tournament allows us to get the schedule, and the schedule allows us to recruit the players,” Stewart said. “There are so many great players in our own backyard. You can win a national championship with North Carolina student-athletes. And that is our ultimate goal.”
On an even narrower level, Stewart said, the Triad is a perfect venue for a major golf tournament, because of the community support here.
Stewart spends the entire year working on the tournament, talking with teams and sponsors. He says he typically has 10 corporate and private sponsors each year. The money goes to help produce the tournament, down to the details, such as making sure the teams are fed at Forest Oaks – a perk that opposing coaches like, so they don’t have to take teams out for dinners.
“There is just such a rich tradition of golf in this area that it hasn’t been that hard to get everybody to come on board,” Stewart said.