Hungover Georgia Bulldogs fans are checking out of St. Simons Island this morning after the annual cocktail party reputed to be the world’s largest.
Meanwhile, the golf crowd will be checking in for a tournament that boasts of being anything but large.
Fresh off its Asian swing, the PGA Tour rolls in for the McGladrey Classic on the Seaside Course at Sea Island Golf Club. And for the first time in its young history, the winner will get an automatic invitation to the Masters Tournament.
“For me, it’s a year late on that part,” said Tommy Gainey, the 2012 champion who shot 60 in the final round to earn his first career victory. “I’m just glad they’ve finally seen that this tournament is big enough to be a FedEx Cup tournament. It should have been there from the beginning.”
With the tour’s new wrap-around schedule, Sea Island becomes the fifth event on the PGA Tour schedule, with an increased purse and more exposure on the Golf Channel. This is the fourth installment of the McGladrey, and tournament host Davis Love III is excited about what it’s developed into so quickly.
“Unbelievable how far we’ve come from an idea to a $5.5 million purse, FedEx points and a Masters invitation,” Love said. “That was always the fantasy.”
The reality is that even stuck in the diminished “Fall Series,” the McGladrey was already exceeding the field strengths of at least half a dozen fully-accredited PGA Tour regular season events. Now it has the chance to become even better.
James Cramer, the tour’s vice president of communications, calls the Sea Island tournament the “perfect model” for a PGA Tour event.
“Engaged sponsor, great course, respected host,” Cramer said.
Intimacy is the word of choice for the tournament.
“From the very beginning we wanted to have it as an intimate event,” said tournament director Scott Reid, who said the tickets are capped at 7,500. “That’s the appeal and lure.”
“People come in and feel like they’re on the front row,” said Scott McQuade, CEO of the Golden Isles Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Some say the tournament’s laid-back vibe is reminiscent to the old Bing Crosby Clambake at Pebble Beach – sans the celebrities. Gainey believes it’s becoming the Hilton Head of the fall.
“The only one that this one compares to is the RBC Heritage,” Gainey said. “The family atmosphere that this brings is something that a lot of players need to come and experience, because I believe that once they experience it one time it will be a given that they come back.”
Love likens it to the old Southern Open at Callaway Gardens.
“All the families come and they all hang out together in a small town,” Love said. “We’re never going to get to 10,000 fans. It’s not going to be where you can’t go watch golf. Where else can you go and watch Matt Kuchar or Zach Johnson from 30 feet away hit every shot? We have plenty of fans but not too many – I think that’s a good combination.”
“Sea Island is a great place to be,” Gainey said. “They’ve got everything that you could want in a golf tournament – a golf tournament/family vacation all in one. You got the beach, you got golf, you got great food, you got a great resort to be in. I mean, what else do you need?”
What it got was a strong sponsor that was highly coveted. Hilton Head was keen on signing McGladrey, but a mid-April date is the last place on the calendar that a tax and consulting firm needs to be entertaining clients at a golf tournament. So they jumped in with the lower dollar and lower key option at Sea Island.
All it needs now is a few bigger stars to build its prestige, but that’s a tough sell for guys like Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson in a part of the schedule that used to be considered “off-season.” Coming hot on the heels of bigger payout events in Asia doesn’t help either.
The 132-man field has a few headliners like Kuchar, Johnson and Webb Simpson and old staples like Vijay Singh, Justin Leonard and David Toms. Local favorites include Charles Howell III, Scott Brown and Kevin Kisner.
And for the foreseeable future it will have Love as its playing host – a role matched only by Woods at the AT&T National, now that Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus are just spectators at their own events.
Love, who will turn 50 in April, says he’s “not slowing down.” He’ll play both Sea Island and Mexico, giving him four tour starts already before the season reaches December. He’s not looking at the Champions Tour schedule with any urgency to play with the seniors.
“I want to play on the regular tour,” he said. “I didn’t go through neck surgery (in February) and three months of rehab to be ready for the Champions Tour. I think if I can chip and putt I can still be competitive. So I’m going to focus on the regular tour for a year or two more.”
And his Sea Island event will focus on the best little golf and cocktail party of the Masters qualifying season.
“We’re sure we’ll be the best of the fall,” said Mark Love, Davis’ brother and the tournament’s executive director. “The checklist was just about growth and getting better each year and I think we’re achieving those things.”