At long last, team competition is on the horizon for Big Ten schools. For Purdue coach Devon Brouse, much of his international roster will return to campus over the next two weeks for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic halted competition last March. While other Power 5 schools competed under strict guidelines in the fall, the Big Ten had to sit the semester out.
Purdue, Michigan State and Penn State will take part in the UCF Challenge at Eagle Creek in Orlando, Florida, Jan. 31-Feb. 2, and then the Boilermakers will host a new premiere event – the Hero Ladies Intercollegiate – at the Founders Golf Club in Sarasota, Florida. The 54-hole event will take place Feb. 7-9.
Brouse, who for years hosted men’s and women’s events in Puerto Rico, wanted to balance the Hero field with teams from the Power 5 conferences. While there are no Pac 12 teams this year, the Big 12 (Iowa State, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech), SEC (Georgia, Ole Miss and Tennessee), ACC (Clemson, NC State, Virginia Tech and Notre Dame) and Big Ten (Purdue, Michigan, Northwestern and Illinois) will be well-represented. Augusta University, coached by former Purdue assistant and graduate Caroline Hegg, rounds out the field.
The 10th hole at The Founders Club in Sarasota, Florida. (Courtesy photo)
In addition to the strong mix of teams, the charity component of the inaugural event is particularly noteworthy, with proceeds benefitting the Army Ranger Lead the Way Fund.
Tournament co-chair Tim Murphy said event sponsorship opportunities are sold out as well as the charity event that will take place in the afternoon following the second round of play. Twenty-five teams – which paid between $5,000 and $10,000 per foursome – will take part in the “Task Force Ranger Scramble.” The evening’s featured speaker will be legendary football coach Lou Holtz.
The Army Ranger Lead the Way Fund is an active duty, casualty assistance, recovery, transition and veterans organization that provides financial support, beyond what the government and Veterans Affairs can offer, to U.S. Army Rangers and the families of those who have died, have been disabled or are currently serving in harm’s way around the world.
Jim and Mary Regan founded the organization in memory of their son, Sgt. James J. Regan, who was killed in his fourth tour of duty serving with the Army Rangers. Sgt. Regan played lacrosse at Duke and passed up a career on Wall Street to serve his country.
Murphy said the tournament is likely to exceed its goal of raising $250,000.
“This event has a lot of purse and mission,” said Brouse.
Northwestern’s team returned to campus under strict quarantine as part of Wildcat Wellness as the school prepared for classes to resume on Jan. 11. Head coach Emily Fletcher said her team started antigen testing last week, and they’ll head down to Florida over the Martin Luther King holiday for practice and a match against Ohio State.
“We just feel like our players are longing to compete in something other than intra-squad competition,” she said.
The Wildcats will head back down to Florida in February for the Hero Ladies event.
The SEC announced that its schools won’t compete until mid-February and that men’s and women’s programs will be limited to tournaments within the SEC footprint (tournaments that occur in a state in which a conference institution is located).
Big Ten schools, however, have no such limitations in terms of where teams can travel.
“If you limit us geographically to the Big Ten footprint,” said Fletcher, “you’re telling us we can’t play golf until April.”
Northwestern heads to Houston after the Sarasota event and then on to the West Coast, where they’ll play two events in California and one in Arizona.
Three of Northwestern’s players from China were unable to come back to campus for fall practice. Junior Jane Lu, who lives in Shanghai, went through Singapore to eventually make her way back to campus on Jan 3. Fletcher isn’t sure if her other two players from China will be able to get back for the spring, including freshman Jieni Li, a promising young player who teed it up in several China LPGA events last year.
While many schools kept to themselves last semester, playing in fivesomes at competitions rather than mixed threesomes, right now it’s a possibility that traditional groupings will return in the spring.
If there are constraints, Fletcher said, there are three options: pair with other Power 5 schools with similar testing protocols; pair with other Big Ten teams; or each team goes off together as a fivesome.
“I think that’s going to be fluid,” she said.
Brouse said that, in his opinion, pairing restrictions don’t make players any safer. Especially considering the sheer number of golf tournaments that have successfully been held at all levels of the game without such restrictions since last summer.
“We get evaluated on head-to-head performance,” said Brouse. “It’s not really head-to-head when you’re playing with your teammates in a fivesome.”
Classes at Purdue resume on Jan. 19 and Brouse said his players have had a wide range of opportunities to compete, depending on the country. Those from India and Indonesia will be competition rusty, while Danielle Du Toit of South Africa won an amateur series back home and a pair from Thailand made several professional starts.
It’s hard to quantify how much of an advantage other conferences have over schools that didn’t get to compete in the fall. As Fletcher said, there’s no substitute for competition, and playing in individual tournaments isn’t quite the same.
But it’s an adjustment that every player who has sat out since last March can’t wait to make.
“We’re really fired up,” Fletcher said.
The Sunshine State awaits.
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