By Len Ziehm
Located in Plymouth, near the Notre Dame campus, Swan Lake hosted the National Junior College Championships last week and will host that event again in 2014. Of even more note, it’ll be the site of the U.S. finals of the World Golfers Championship this September and the International Network of Golf spring meeting in 2013.
The announcements of both came at this year’s 22nd ING spring gathering, conducted at Embassy Suites Greenville Golf Resort and Conference Center and its accompanying golf course, The Preserve at Verdae.
“These are pretty big things,’’ said Andy Mears, director of sales and marketing at Swan Lake and an ING executive committee member. “We’re planning to hold a lot of events like this to showcase the resort.’’
Swan Lake didn’t always take that approach, even after Richard Klingler took over ownership 12 years ago. Mears came on board in November, 2011, as a key mover in changing the resort.
“There’s been a complete transformation of management there,’’ said Mears. “The owners decided to go in an entirely new direction. We’ve opened up to outings and have a whole new staff at the (teaching) academy. We’ve got 70 pros on staff, and they’ve been incredibly busy.’’
Klingler, an Indiana native who founded the Holiday Rambler RV Co. and later sold it, wasn’t even a golfer when he took over Swan Lake in 2000. In addition to taking on the big events, Swan Lake has attracted outings, notably a big one from Wal-Mart, which moved from a course in Valparaiso to Swan Lake. The resort used to average eight weddings a year; this year it’ll host 25.
The teaching operation is a high priority as well, under head professional Chad Hutsell. He had held that job at Plymouth Country Club for 12 years and returned to the area at Swan Lake after a stint at Aberdeen in Valparaiso.
“We’ll turn the golf operation into a learning center for PGA apprentices,’’ said Mears. “We want to be the Triple-A farm club for the PGA of America.’’
Swan Lake, spread over 600 acres, has 92 hotel rooms plus cabins and cottages and a 20m000 square-foot convention center.
The biggest event of this year, the U.S. finals of the World Golfers Championship, will be held Sept. 20-22. The leaders in five flights based on handicap will qualify for the finals in Durban, South Africa. Billed as “the world’s largest amateur tournament,’’ this is a growing competition started 17 years ago by legendary late Swedish athlete Sven Tumba, a hockey great who turned to golf later in life and designed the first course in Moscow.
Tumba’s first events were invitationals, but he eventually switched to a qualifying format and now eliminations are held in 40 countries. Florida-based Anders Bengtson is the majority owner of the U.S.. portion of the competition, which involves about 200 elimination events held year-around.
“We’re now in eight states and looking for tournament directors all over the country,’’ said Bengtson, a fellow ING member. “We’ll have in the thousands try to qualify (for the U.S. finals) and expect 80-100 to play at Swan Lake.’’
John Downey is the tournament director for Illinois, and a former Chicago area judge, Eddie Stephens, was a qualifier for the World finals last year at the U.S. event held in San Antonio, Tex.
The World Golfers Championship is unique, in that men and women of all ages compete together. There’s no breakdowns for age or sex, only by handicaps (0-5, 6-10, 11-15, 16-20 and 21-25). Different tees, though, are used according to sex , age and handicap differences.
“We feel we’re a true amateur tournament,’’ said Bengtson. “We’ve established camaraderie with people, some of whom can’t even communicate because of their language differences. But they’ve still become friends.’’
Bengtson took next year’s finals to Swan Lake because “it’s very charming and we need at least two courses…I don’t want the players playing one course over and over because they play four in the finals.’’
The World finals were held at PGA National in Florida the first three years but had a more international flavor after that. The finals will be held in South Africa for the second straight year but were held in Spain in 2009 and Thailand in 2010. Arnold Palmer has endorsed the competition and the late Seve Ballesteros was honorary chairman of the advisory committee last year.
Swan Lake has two 18-holers for the 72-hole competition, and the finals include two practice rounds and four tournament rounds, to be played on four different high-quality layouts.
As for the four-day ING event, it’ll bring golf leaders from management, resort, equipment and media together next May 19–23. Executive director Mike Jamison has taken the event around the country, with this year’s golf portion played on a challenging layout designed by Willard Byrd in the 1990s. It had hosted a Nike Tour event for nine years.
That was in keeping with the type of layouts Jamison had previously used. It was held at Florida’s Innisbrook layout, site of the PGA Tour’s Transitions Championship, in 2010.