Sunbelt Senior Tour Just Keeps Growing
Senior Tour player George Swistock, from Inkster, Mich., hit his drive on the par-4 fifth hole at Wild Wing Plantation in Myrtle Beach and watched as the ball hit a seagull in mid-flight.
The gull swirled to the ground and fluttered around on the fairway. The players rushed to its aid, but before they could reach it, a large hawk swooped down and carried it off to the branches of a nearby tree.
One of the other players commented, "I don't know if this counts as having a birdie and an eagle on one hole, or just two birds!"
Just another day on the Sunbelt Senior Tour, America's No. 1 senior developmental tour.
If you've never heard of the SST, that's about to change. The Tour begins its 15th year in 2010, continuing to provide hundreds of senior touring professionals the opportunity to prepare for life on the Champions or European Senior Tours, or to just compete at the highest level with the chance of making some money in the process.
The Sunbelt Tour has made numerous appearances in the Sandhills, playing the Kelly's Classic at Whispering Woods for several years before moving to Little River Resort last year. It has also been a fixture at National Golf Club as part of the Patriot Pro-Am.
Hundreds of senior professional golfers from around the world annually enter Champions Tour Qualifying School in an attempt to realize the dream of securing one of only five fully exempt spots on Tour. They pay the $2,500 entry fee and compete in regionals with the hope of making it to the finals, where they play four rounds against 100 other pros seeking the same thing.
At the 2009 Champions Tour Q-School, SST members Jack Ferenz, the Sunbelt's leading money winner in 2009, John Ross and Javier Sanchez earned playing status for 2010. Former members Kirk Hanefeld and Rod Spittle should also get some Champions Tour starts in 2010 as a result of their Q-School accomplishments.
Fortunately, those players who don't earn their cards can stay sharp during the year by playing in any or all of the 14 events on the Sunbelt Senior Tour.
A typical winner's paycheck will be in the $10,000 range, with the tour champion projected to win close to $20,000. To win that amount on the Champions Tour, a pro would have to finish in the top half of the field.
Headquartered in Myrtle Beach, the Sunbelt Tour is owned and operated by Carolinas PGA professional Don Barnes. He founded the Tour in 1996 with the encouragement of the late Hamp Auld, a PGA Tour player during the Wall-Bolt-January era.
"Hamp worked for me as a teaching pro at Colonial Charters and pushed me to start a senior tour," Barnes said. "When our club was sold in 1996, that was all the motivation I needed to start the tour. Unfortunately, Hamp died prior to that and never got to play on it."
Barnes and his wife, Yvonne, have held more than 300 tournaments over the past 14 years that have paid out over $3 million in purses, with a total for charitable contributions that will break the million dollar mark in the coming year.
As the SST enters its 15th year, it is reaching new heights with more events, bigger purses, television coverage, a fan base and more money given to charity.
"In the beginning, our events were mainly played in the southeastern states of Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina," Barnes said. "But we have now held events in Alabama, Mississippi, West Virginia, Virginia and Pennsylvania, and we're planning on adding tournaments in Tennessee and Arizona this year."
Players on the SST read like a Who's Who of professional golfers. Walter Hall, who now has won nearly $7 million on the Champions Tour, won four events on the Sunbelt Tour in 1996 and added another win as recently as 2007.
James Mason played on the Sunbelt Tour for three years before striking pay dirt with a win as a Monday qualifier in the Champions Tour's NFL Classic. He has since won more than $2 million.
Gene Jones was the leading money winner on the Sunbelt Tour each year from 2005 through 2007 and was medalist in the 2007 National Q-School finals. As a Monday qualifier, he finished 18th on the 2008 Champions Tour money list with over $1 million in earnings. As a fully exempt member in 2009, Jones finished 12th on the Champions Tour with earnings of $1.1 million.
The Sunbelt Tour attracts many top professionals from around the world, including Australia, Africa, most of the European countries and Canada. Sunbelt players with outstanding records include Ryder Cup team member and five-time PGA Tour winner Ken Green and former PGA Tour players Gary Hallberg, Kenny Knox and Pat McGowan.
Other PGA Tour champions include David Ogrin, George Burns, Frank Conner, Bill Britton, Lon Hinkle, Rex Caldwell, Tony Sills, Dan Halldorson and Jim Booros.
Well-known players include Tom McKnight, who won his first professional championship on the Sunbelt Senior Tour before making it onto the Champions Tour. He finished third in the Champions 2008 National Q-School, was fully exempt in 2009 and has lifetime earnings of $1,852,989.
Mike Goodes is a 2007 Sunbelt winner who finished in the Champions Tour top 30 in 2008 as a Monday qualifier and repeated again in 2009 with his first Champions Tour victory and a two-year total of $1,404,485.
Steve Thomas, a five-time Sunbelt Tour winner, captured one of only five spots at the Champions Tour Q-School Finals and was fully exempt in 2009. He set a new Champions Tour driving distance record of 301.5 yards average for the year.
Champions Tour member John Ross credits the SST as a place to keep his skills honed.
"I've been fortunate to have played on the Sunbelt Senior Tour over the last 10 years as I have pursued my professional career," said Ross, who is fourth on the all-time Sunbelt money list.
There is no other developmental senior tour in North America that can boast of the numbers or quality of players of the SST, and Barnes is planning on taking steps to ensure more people are aware of it.
"We're going to encourage fans to come out to our events, and we'll hold long drive and other skills clinics at our tournaments as well," Barnes said.
European Senior Tour Champion Bertus Smit, of South Africa, may say it best.
"When I look back on the years I played on the Sunbelt Senior Tour, I have so many fond memories and am so glad I decided play on this Tour," Smith said. "Until that stage, I had been an amateur for 48 years. By playing in the Sunbelt events, I got everything I needed to compete on the big tours -- competition, how to conduct myself, course management, etc.
"Don Barnes has run the Sunbelt Tour to perfection by putting his heart into it for all these years, and his 15th year looks to be the best. I can only thank God for letting him come into my life. I really hope to return at least one more time."
For player and sponsor information, visit the Web site at www.sunbeltseniortour.com
Rick Baker is Director of Corporate Relations for the Sunbelt Senior Tour.
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