The Donald Ross Memorial Invitational has long been known for the challenge it presents area high school golf teams in preparation for postseason tournaments.
Entering its 20th year, that still holds true. Sixteen boys teams and nine girls teams from Manatee, Sarasota and Charlotte counties will battle it out Monday at Sara Bay Country Club.
"As an area event, it's definitely a premier event," Lakewood Ranch boys golf coach Dave Frantz said. "We've always held it in high regard. Just for us, for Lakewood Ranch, we've gone around to different tournaments around the state, and the Donald Ross is still, in my opinion, the most well-run and most respected with regard to the members doing it for the good of the kids. It's the most altruistic tournament that there is thanks to the members of Sara Bay."
Lakewood Ranch's boys team has won the event the past two years and parlayed that success into capturing back-to-back Class 2A state championships.
The Mustangs are off to a quick start this season and won this past weekend's presitigious Qdoba Tournament of Champions in Davenport.
They are the favorites to take home a third consecutive Ross team title. However, there are some challengers in the form of a new entrant into this year's tournament, Port Charlotte Community School, as well as Sara
sota Riverview and Saint Stephen's.
Joining the Mustangs and Falcons from the area are Braden River, Bradenton Christian, Cardinal Mooney, Manatee and Out-of-Door Academy.
Regardless of the opponent, though, the course is the real enemy for area golfers. Players can springboard from performing well at Sara Bay into deep postseason runs.
"It tests your entire game because it's tree-lined, so you have to watch what you hit off the tee," Frantz said. "Then you've got target-sized greens, where most of the time I tell my guys to aim for the middle of the green because you're not going to go pin-hunting on some of those greens. You short-side yourself and you're looking at some impossible chip shots. You've got to have the iron game. ... If you hit the green, you have the severe sloping from ... back to front, so putting is a difficulty. You want to be below the hole all day."
The Mustangs boast three stellar players in University of Florida-bound senior Ramsey Touchberry, University of Virginia commit and senior Danny Walker and junior Luke Miller who should contend for the boys individual crown. Miller will attempt to defend the championship he won in 2012 by carding a 69 and defeating BCS' Philip Knowles in a playoff.
"I'd say he's probably average-wise a stroke and a half lower than he was at this point last year," said Frantz about Miller's game this fall. "He's definitely stepped it up a little bit as far as keeping up with Danny and Ramsey. ... I know he's excited about defending his title."
Knowles joins Sarasota Riverview's Jeremy Perna and Mason Fox, Saint Stephen's Jack Cen and Sarasota Christian's Charles Wang as some potential challengers for Miller's title.
Perna is coming off the recent FSGA Florida Junior Tour event held at Sara Bay, where he posted a scorching 64 in the first round.
Sara Bay head pro Daren King said the course won't play as long as the FJT event did, but the track in southern Manatee County should still test the field.
"I think if you're playing good, you can control your golf ball, your short game has got to be really on ... your flaws come out here," King said.
Meanwhile, Manatee's Gianna Tomeo is back to defend her girls individual title after she carded a 76 in last year's tournament.
Venice's Grace Gildner, who finished runner-up to Tomeo in 2012, returns to challenge for the individual title as well as the Yan sisters (Michelle and Vanessa) from Saint Stephen's.
On the team side, Ranch, Manatee and Saint Stephen's are the lone representatives from Manatee County.
"It's kind of nice, you've got the defending champions in the boys and girls, and the runners-ups in the boys and girls back playing again," King said.
Tee times begin at 8:30 a.m. with players beginning on either No. 1 or No. 10. The public is welcome to attend.