Golf | Local players excited about new Symetra Tour schedule, which includes Sara Bay stop

Sara Bay Classic set for April 26-28

jdill@bradenton.comFebruary 13, 2013 

MANATEE -- Four inaugural events, two additional stops in Florida and new title sponsors for existing tournaments.

Those are just some of the changes coming to the 2013 Symetra Tour, the women's developmental tour that sends qualifying players directly to the LPGA Tour.

The 2013 season's schedule was released Tuesday, and local players are excited by what they'll encounter this year.

The tour will return to Sara Bay Country Club in southern Manatee County. The venerable Donald Ross-designed course featured difficult scoring conditions in its inaugural season last

year, but the event is back as the Guardian Retirement Championship.

The title sponsor joined the effort toward the end of 2012.

This year's event, which will feature a $100,000 purse again, is scheduled for April 26-28.

"We've sort of underwritten the long-term financial viability of that event by adding Guardian Life as our title sponsor," Symetra Tour Chief Business Officer Mike Nichols said.

Players such as Rachel Connor, who trains locally, as well as former IMG Academy standouts Ginger Howard and Jaclyn Sweeney are eager to take that next step this season and earn an LPGA Tour card.

To do so, they'll have to rack up enough cash to secure a spot in the money list's top 10 over the course of the 15 tournaments dotting the schedule.

It's quite a contrast to qualifying through Q-School, which is often about who gets hot over five nerve-wracking rounds over one week as opposed to determining the best players over a seasonlong grind.

Another wrinkle to this year's schedule is the season-ending Tour Championship gaining the sponsorship of Symetra and extending from a three-day tourney to a 72-hole contest that mirrors many LPGA Tour events.

"It's not just five rounds of golf like at Q-School," Sweeney said. "It's a just a big deal to have those three-round tournaments; even our final tournament in Daytona Beach is going to be four rounds this year. To have those rounds of golf under your belt, to have those experiences, to have the opportunity to go out and play your best golf every week is really a phenomenal opportunity for players."

Among the events added to this year's slate are two inaugural ventures at the famed Innisbrook Resort in Palm Harbor and at the Reunion Resort in Kissimmee.

"It is a big treat to have so many events in Florida," Connor said. "They just keep adding events in Florida, so it makes it a lot easier traveling. ... The geography of (the new schedule) is a lot better for us to travel."

The season begins next week at the inaugural Gateway Classic in Mesa, Ariz., and the final first-year tournament is May 17-19 in Asheville, N.C.

But it all culminates at the Tour Championship, which can make or break a player's chances of gaining fully-exempt status.

This year marks the second time out of the tour's 33 seasons that it'll be issuing fully-exempt cards for the top 10 players on the money list at the season's conclusion.

Sweeney was bumped from the bubble in the 2012 Tour Championship. Daniela Iacobelli won and jumped inside the top 10 by virtue of that victory.

"I was really happy with my season last year," Sweeney said. "I really adapted the mindset that everything happens for a reason. And I really expect good things to happen out on the golf course this year."

However, with just 15 events running from February to September, that leaves several gaps in the schedule that can make it difficult for players to build rhythm.

The flip side, though, is that players can recharge their batteries with the breaks in between tournaments.

And there is still the possibility of another tournament or two being added, Nichols said.

"I'm just really pleased we have four new tournaments this year," Howard said. "We are gradually improving."

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