Sports Den column – Island Resort lifts women’s golf

New Sage Run course offers some spectacular challenges

Dennis Grall | Daily Press Sage Run Golf Course north of Wilson has drawn interest from golf raters, players and the golf industry since it opened in June. A drumlin, a prime feature of the spectacular hilly course, can require some shots to sail up to 200 feet above, such as shown here on No. 16. Leaves are starting to turn colors, which will provide a brilliant view from atop many hills that are prominent on the course. A group of Escanaba golfers, Dennis Coon, Guy Sawyer, Rick Steele and Tom Zeni, above a bunker complex, ponder their next shot.

ESCANABA — Give a lot of credit to Island Resort and Casino for the impact it has provided for women’s golf in the midwest.

The Island Resort Championship at Sweetgrass was the Symetra Tour event that kick-started the golf revival on the women’s level. It began in 2011 and will make its ninth visit to the Harris golf course June 21-23, 2019.

It was announced at last year’s tournament that the top two finishers at the 2019 event would also qualify to play in the Evian Championship in France, which is the fifth major on the LPGA Tour. The Symetra Tour is branded as the Road to the LPGA.

Since the Symetra Tour came to Harris, it has also been to Milwaukee Brown Deer Golf Course the past couple of years, and now Janesville, Wis. will host a Symetra event Aug. 2-4, 2019. In addition, some of the premier players on the LPGA Tour have been in Green Bay the past two years at Thornberry Creek.

The Janesville Golf Classic has an added attraction, bringing the LPGA Legends Tour to the prestigious Janesville Country Club for a $150,000 purse. That means legends like Nancy Lopez could play in the final round, with the elder pros playing after the 144-player field has been cut after two rounds.

A similar Legends/Symetra event has been held in Fort Myers, Fla. the past couple of years, right next to a complex where Ralph and Dorothy Zenker of Escanaba have a condominium.

The Janesville course opened in 1901 when it became the sixth country club in the United States and the second in the midwest.

Sweetgrass, in comparison, opened in 2008 and has been ranked among the best courses in Michigan, which has some of the best courses in the country.

When the Symetra Tour came here in 2011, there were only 15 tour events. Now there are 23, and Island Resort general manager Tony Mancilla said “the players then didn’t have top-flight courses to play.”

Sweetgrass quickly became a favorite of the tour players and has maintained that position while the tour has grown. Mancilla said the appointments of Mike Nichols and Tim Kramer to the Symetra leadership has been extremely beneficial to the overall growth.

“They are playing really nice courses now. They do add quality courses,” he said.

The recession was in full swing when Sweetgrass joined with Symetra. A year later, South Bend, Ind. came aboard and then in 2013 Battle Creek joined the mix.

All three have casinos operated by the Potawatomi Tribe. Since 2011, Tullymore in Stanford, Mich. has also added a Symetra stop, three LPGA tournaments will be held in Michigan, and PGA Champions Tour events are in Grand Blanc, Mich. and Madison, Wis.

“The midwest does have good golf fans, does have great golf courses and has the ability to raise sponsorship money,” said Mancilla. “Michigan and Wisconsin are really a big stop on all the tours now.”

Mancilla takes pride in the role Sweetgrass has played in that boom. “We did get a lot of notoriety for that. People know us by the logo (at golf events),” he said.

“I think what it really is, (the thought) is if you can do an event in the U.P. and be successful, we can do one down here. It kind of snowballs. I think it did help kick-start it a little bit.”

Mancilla said Symetra personnel have appreciated everything done here to make the stop a priority. “We’re known within the Symetra Tour as one of the bigger events,” he said.

Meanwhile, golfers are finding a new challenge operated by Island Resort, namely the dynamic Sage Run Golf Course eight miles northwest of the casino.

Mancilla, who estimates he has played the course about 15 times since it opened in June, recommends golfers play their first round with someone who has played the course.

“It is all about course knowledge,” said Mancilla, who had a 93 on his first attempt even though he had been on the course many times during construction. He dropped that down to a 79 recently.

“The reaction has been about 80 percent positive,” he said, noting high handicappers or seniors have had the most trouble on a rollicking, hilly, forested layout with extremely undulating greens.

“If you can’t hit any height on the ball you will struggle (on some holes),” he said, which was obvious the two times I’ve played there. “It takes five-six rounds before you really understand it,” said Mancilla.