WILSON — Half of the attendees will be newcomers to the third Island Resort Collegiate Golf Tournament during Labor Day weekend at the Sage Run Golf Course.
Newcomers include Valparaiso, Illinois State, Miami of Ohio, Toledo, North Dakota State, and Southern Illinois. Liberty won the first IRC in 2019, and non-returning Michigan State won last year’s tournament by 23 strokes over the University of Central Florida.
The 12-team NCAA Division I field will be rounded out by third-placed University of Michigan in 2021, fifth-placed University of Kentucky, tournament host South Dakota State, which finished sixth last year, with Wisconsin-Green Bay, Bowling Green and Northern Michigan University the only D-2 entrant.
Kentucky freshman Hunter Thomas, who tied for 39th here last year, was the only Wildcat to start all 11 events in 2021-22. Kentucky, which could be the tournament favorite with seven comebacks, is led by Garrett Wood’s 71.55 average. His left-handed teammate Alex Goff averaged 71.97 last season and Campbell Kremer averaged 72.89.
Tournament officials are looking for volunteers to fill various positions at the tournament. They can contact Dave Douglas (906-723-2250) to help take spectators to different holes, spotting and scoring.
There is no charge for spectators to attend the September 4-5 tournament. The teams will train on the challenging course on September 3.
Competitors will include two South Dakota State golfers who have played the course frequently, sophomore Tyler Kretz of Marinette and freshman Bryson Mercier of Powers. Mercier finished fourth in the recent UP Golf Association men’s tournament after finishing second last year. Mercier is one of four freshmen on the SDSU team.
Mercier said he was disappointed with his last run at the recent UPGA, noting he had 15 pars and a bogey. “I really thought I had a chance to win” he said recently in front of a class at SDSU. He said Iron Mountain Pine Grove was a really fair test. “I played better than my score showed. It’s something to learn. Everyone fails at golf.
Mercier said he made friends with the other frosh golfers and was looking forward to qualifying for the Jackrabbits. “I got to know the whole team. Everyone fits in” he said.
His goal is to enjoy school “And qualify (for the events) and be competitive and take it as you go.” Every team member will come to Sage Run.
SDSU’s connection to this tournament came through VanDamme, a Perkins native who spent seven years as SDSU’s men’s and women’s coach and is now the women’s golf coach at Kent State University. The Kent State Women recently won their 23rd consecutive Mid-American Conference title.
Mercier, who was recruited to SDSU by VanDamme, learned VanDamme was leaving SDSU during the 2021 UPGA Tournament at Escanaba Country Club. “It was a pretty good shock to the system. (But) I felt good for him, it’s a great opportunity for him.” he said.
VanDamme became Kent State’s head coach just before last year’s IRC and was replaced on an interim basis by Manistique native Mike Nagy. Parker Eden has since replaced Nagy at SDSU. Eden had been a coach at Colorado State.
Eden says VanDamme “jumped and helped” to organize this third tournament. “He was very helpful. This tournament is very important to him. It could have been a lot more stressful” without his help, said Eden.
Eden, whose first day at SDSU was Aug. 22, said a few former participants opted out of this year’s tournament to compete in an amateur world event.
“It should be a big event. It will be quite competitive for the teams, and there are some very good individuals. said Eden. “It’s a really great opportunity for our guys to play. I’ve heard a lot of good things from the golf course.
Sage Run, which opened in 2018, was recently ranked 20th among golf courses in the state. Its neighboring big sister, Sweetgrass Golf Club, is ranked 10th. Sweetgrass was named National Golf Course of the Year in January.
MSU’s James Piot, who won the US Amateur in 2021 and now plays on the new LIV Tour, was the original IRC medalist with a 207. Last year he shared the honors with his MSU teammate Troy Taylor II at 209.
“If we play as we can, we will have our noses in it” said Eden, giving a vote of confidence to the players he just met. “It will be a good challenge. I can’t wait to get there.
“The first two weeks I’ll see where we are, research the guys and see what we can do, and see what our weaknesses are.”
Sage Run, which has been widely played this season, has seen impressive growth. Island Resort General Manager Tony Mancilla tries to play it 3-4 times a week and expects the many newcomers to quickly become familiar with the course during their practice rounds.
He said the “primary stock is thick” and the uphill par-four eighth hole is passable for college golfers while the No. 9 “is an excellent par five with a two-tiered green, No. 3 is a birdie hole.
He said a key to scoring at Sage Run is “hit the right line” off the tee. A key on the par five 12th hole is to ‘play on the left side. Fifteen plays against the wind (on an elevated tee). #4 is a sneaky hole.
“There are a lot of nuances in the course. The greens are firm and play fast. There are a lot of difficult holes there,” he says of a hilly course that has a unique character and feel.