Originally created 02/24/01

Two area clubs wanted tournament



Things happen fast at the fledgling Mount Vintage Plantation golf course in North Augusta. The course opened for business 11 months ago, and now it has six months to prepare itself as a professional tournament venue.

Club president Don Howard isn't overwhelmed by the daunting prospects of getting ready to play host to the Asahi Ryokuken Augusta International Championship, an LPGA Tour event scheduled for Sept. 20-23.

"This was an opportunity to have a part in bringing a world-class tournament to this community," Howard said. "We pledge our utmost efforts to make this a great tournament."

Mount Vintage principal owners Bettis Rainsford and Talmadge Knight envisioned building a golf course in the Augusta region that would rival Augusta National, the famed home of the Masters. Framed by mature trees, four lakes, three streams and signature hand-laid stone bridges, the Tom Jackson course has drawn glowing reviews.

Upon touring the course last year, two-time Masters champion Byron Nelson labeled it a "magnificent layout."

"We began with a commitment and vision that we were going to have a great facility, and we have not wavered from that," Howard said. "The success we've had and the golf course reinforce that vision."

Tournament chairman Larry Fridie said the decision on a host site was not determined until the final hours before Friday's news conference, with Mount Vintage and North Augusta's River Club as the finalists.

Chris Verdery, the head pro at The River Club which already hosts a Hooters Tour event in March, said he was disappointed his club wasn't selected.

"We felt like with our proximity to downtown and the quality of the course that we would be a strong candidate to host the event," Verdery said. "We'd like to congratulate Mount Vintage. It will be an excellent venue."

LPGA Commissioner Ty Votaw would not disclose the length of the contract with sponsor Asahi Ryokuken or Mount Vintage, only to say that it was a "multi-year deal." Votaw also admitted that because of the late addition to the schedule there is a strong possibility that there will be no television coverage of the inaugural event, though a provision exists to allow a local broadcast.

Still, Votaw said "the level of enthusiasm and support led us to Augusta at the exclusion of other cities."

The LPGA event, sponsored by a Japanese health food company, falls into the open week between the Safeway Classic in Portland, Ore., and the AFLAC Champions in Mobile, Ala.

"Coming in at this point, there was obviously less opportunity to select a date," Howard said. "I'm sure one of the things that will be discussed over the years will perhaps be other dates that might be even more beneficial."

As the last domestic full-field event of the LPGA season, it might be a stretch for some players to travel across the country from Oregon.

"I hope it won't be awkward for players," said LPGA veteran Mitzi Edge of Augusta.

The LPGA Tour is likely to explore moving the tournament in future years to a spring time slot to add more geographic continuity. The tour shifts from the West Coast to the Southeast in late April and early May, with consecutive stops in Texas (April 26-29), Georgia (May 4-6) and Tennessee (May 10-13).

The Titleholders Championship was played at Augusta Country Club in mid-March from 1950-60 before shifting to a late April date for four years and ultimately landing in November in 1965-66. The Titleholders, considered one of the original LPGA major championships, ended its run in Augusta in 1966.

The Mount Vintage course setup would be significantly different in the spring than fall, with lush overseeded rye fairways and rough instead of late-season Bermuda.

"We think the golf course will be in great shape at that time," Howard said.

Head pro Brian Thelan admits that one of the difficult issues Mount Vintage will have to deal with is the "walkability" of the course. With long treks between some greens and tees, a system of shuttles for the players might need to be employed.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219.