LPGA’s Symetra Tour tabs Sara Bay

MANATEE -- The Symetra Tour’s motto is the “Road to the LPGA.”

And starting in 2012, that road will go through Manatee County.

That’s because one of the oldest and most storied golf courses in the area is bringing professional golf back.

Sara Bay Country Club was selected as the host venue for a Symetra Tour event in April at an announcement at the club on Tuesday.

The Symetra Tour was previously known as the Futures Tour, which is the top developmental tour for the LPGA Tour. Players finishing in the top 10 of the money list earn LPGA Tour cards, while the next 10 places are exempt into the final stage of Q-School.

The three-day, 54-hole tournament runs from April 19-22 (Friday-Sunday). Although, the tournament week starts April 16, and there are two pro-ams scheduled for the two days preceding the first round.

It is expected to have a 144-player field with about 30 countries represented and an estimated prize purse of $100,000. About $15,000 will be awarded to the winner.

The course located in southern Manatee County has a rich history that includes the famous Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen match as well as formerly hosting the PGA Senior Championship and the LPGA’s Sarasota Open.

Sara Bay marks the third Donald Ross design to fill out the Symetra Tour’s 2012 schedule, which begins in March and concludes in September.

The last major area golf event took place at TPC Prestancia in south Sarasota. Back then, under the Senior PGA Tour name, Tom Wargo won the last event conducted there in 2000.

Since then, Manatee and Sarasota counties have been without big-time professional tour golf.

Although, the West Florida Golf Tour has provided mini-tour players a chance to hone their games as a men’s developmental tour over the past couple years.

In addition to the main event, there will be a competition at IMG Academies to give out a sponsor’s exemption to one amateur player for play in the April tournament.

The tournament is tentatively titled the LPGA Symetra Tour Classic at Sara Bay, which will remain until a title sponsor is found. The event will also be in need of volunteers and the CEO of the renamed tour, Zayra Calderon, said about 50 percent of the players will be housed near the course at private homes.

“These are the very best up-and-coming players,” Calderon said. “... And when you see these players, you’re going to have the next generation of LPGA Tour stars in your backyard.”

The course will measure around 6,400-6,600 yards for tournament play and is an ideal location for spectators as most holes run back-and-forth in the traditional old-styled design work of the 1920s.

Calderon said the issue of parking will be handled with shuttles from nearby churches. Another potential hurdle is also being handled as the driving range at Sara Bay has only limited space. The nearby Suncoast Golf Center is set to reopen in early January and players will use the facility for practice.

The decision to pick Sara Bay as a tournament site for 2012 came last month.

Sara Bay’s hallmark is its greens, which are undulating and quick -- something that gives it the appeal of a famous Ross design to the north, Pinehurst No. 2 in North Carolina.

“This golf course has stood the test of time, which is amazing,” Sara Bay head pro Daren King said. “ ... The green complexes hold it up. It’s a typical Donald Ross, where it gives you generous landing areas, but your second shots, your approach shots are very critical coming into the green.”

Also on hand during Tuesday’s announcement was Hartford, Conn., native Natalie Sheary, who attended IMG Academies for her senior year of high school before embarking on a successful college career at Wake Forest.

Sheary graduated last year and will begin her second year on the former Futures Tour in 2012.

“They were like, ‘Oh we might hold an event out here,’” she said. “I was like, ‘You definitely should.’”