MANATEE -- In past years, the Donald Ross Memorial Invitational has served as the perfect opportunity for area high school teams to prepare for the postseason grind because it is an 18-hole tournament compared to the nine-hole matches often played in the regular season.
That has changed.
Lakewood Ranch was the first program in the area to begin traveling around the state for 18-hole tournament competition, and the results have been staggering. The added experience has led the Mustangs to three consecutive state championships.
"Riverview was the first one to kind of follow our lead two years ago, and I think Coach (John) Sprague saw what it kind of did for our program," Ranch head coach Dave Frantz said. "And then this past year, Braden River has done a couple of tournaments as well, because they are much improved as well. So I think it all comes down to, obviously, what the school allows as far as missing class time, but it also comes down to how much value do you place on what needs to be done to play golf at the elite level in high school. We've been doing it for years with football programs and baseball programs and volleyball and soccer. It's just that it hasn't really spread to golf until we were kind of the first team in this area to do it."
But Monday's 21st annual Ross at tradition-rich Sara Bay Country Club still holds importance on the prep golf calendar.
The golf course, though, has been hit with a large amount of rain in September. Head pro Daren King said the greens, which feature the Ross-design trademark of crowned greens, drain at a decent rate.
"The golf course will play a lot longer," King said. "It will play softer as far as the green complexes, maybe. ... The way that they are shaped, typically you aren't going to hold water on our greens."
The tournament features boys and girls teams from Manatee, Sarasota and Charlotte counties duking it out.
Ranch has been a dominant force in the boys division with three straight team championships, and the Mustangs witnessed Kelly Sun becoming an unlikely individual winner when he fired a 65 out of the No. 4 position last year.
This year's tourney features several players who could emerge with the individual crown. Ranch's Spencer Schultz is one, but Bradenton Christian's pair of Philip Knowles and Landry Miller also should contend.
Knowles is coming off a red-hot summer, during which he played in the U.S. Amateur and won some Florida Junior Tour events.
"I think it goes to whoever is hot, and there are probably 12 guys that can get hot and win that tournament," Frantz said.
On the girls side, Gabrielle Tomeo joined older sister Gianna at Manatee High this season. The freshman has bested her sister, a senior and two-time defending Ross champ, in a few nine-hole matches already.
The duo, alongside the Yan sisters (Michelle and Vanessa) at Saint Stephen's, and Riverview's Nicole Polivchak are the top contenders for the girls championship.
Gianna Tomeo is the lone back-to-back girls winner in the tournament's 20-year history.
Tee times begin at 8:30 a.m. off Nos. 1 and 10, and spectators are welcome to attend.