Golfers enjoy return to competitive play

Ken Rudin, of the Evans Prairie team, hits out of the sand at the Egret nine at Evans Prairie Country Club during the Men’s Village Cup in 2019. Competitive golf is back in The Villages after last year’s disruption.

It’s not as though Chuck Wynne hasn’t had ample opportunity in recent months to get out on the golf course, or to lighten the wallets of his buddies. That said, those days don’t stand up to the satisfaction he and partner Grant Chenault enjoyed in Saturday’s lengthening shadows, walking off with top honors at the Men’s Match Play Championship at Glenview Champions Country Club. “We play some money games during the week,” said Wynne, who lives in the Village of Sunset Pointe, “but, boy, when you’re playing for pride and bragging rights it makes all the difference in the world.” Said Chenault, a Village of Hadley resident: “It’ll take me two days to come down off this.” There’s golf, Bobby Jones famously once said, and there’s tournament golf.

And for a certain segment of Villages golfers, that second element was an itch that long needed to be scratched.

“It’s good for the game,” said Adonica Aune (Village of Pennecamp), who finished second to Joyce Findley at the 9-Hole Ladies Championship. “We play anyway, but competition is a little more unique.”

Last week marked an official return of competitive golf to The Villages, with champions crowned in three events — the Super Seniors Championship and 9-Hole Ladies at Hacienda Hills in addition to the Men’s Match Play.

Those also happened to be the last events completed in 2020 before the COVID-19 virus upended golf and everything around it.

“We’ve been pleased,” said Ken Roshaven, golf services administrator with The Villages Golf & Tennis. “We’re pleased that we’ve been able to host some events and do so in a responsible manner. And we appreciate the participants for helping us to accomplish that.”

The arrangements now come a little more spartan — no big scoreboards to gather around, no scorecard exchange, delayed trophies. More flexible rules in the event a competitor might have been exposed to the virus.

But once that little white ball gets airborne, the game really looks no different than it did before the pandemic struck.

“I think The Villages has done a great job in terms of managing golf on the course with the rules and changes they’ve made,” Wynne said. “Kudos to them for keeping us out there. But it’s great to have competitive golf back.”

In terms of numbers, it’s been a mixed bag. Signups for the Super Seniors and 9-Hole Ladies were off somewhat from previous years, while the 184 women who entered the ongoing Ladies’ Match Play held relatively steady.

Then there was the Men’s Match Play, which drew 242 entrants — about a 40 percent increase from the usual signup to play the Ryder Cup-style fourballs.

“Historically we’ve been around 160 players, 180 tops,” said Tyler Krager, head PGA professional at Glenview Champions. “That told me they want to play golf.”

Said Wynne: “We were talking out there about how every one of us has a competitive streak in us, a hunger to satisfy.”

Krager wound up creating eight brackets to accommodate all the entries. He suggested Match Play might have been the perfect opportunity to reintroduce competition to The Villages’ fairways, as teams had flexibility to schedule their own matches.

“It’s priority (access), so they have a better choice of times,” he said. “But you don’t have to wait for the rest of the field to finish. When you finish your match, you know exactly where you stand. … We don’t do a ton of (match play), but we’re talking about maybe some other options.”

The biggest challenge, Krager said, was to think through “12 degrees of COVID scenarios” and come up with ready solutions.

“Until you get in there and get your hands dirty and wade through all the scenarios, you really don’t know,” Krager said. “Some weren’t even a positive case, but their spouse was positive, so they’re in quarantine with a negative (reading).”

Substitution rules were eased to accommodate COVID cases, subject to approval from officials. “I couldn’t swap out my 10-handicap buddy for a 2-handicap buddy,” Krager quipped.

Roshaven noted substitutions have been on the books before, “but once you got subbed out, you were out. If somebody wasn’t feeling well, it wasn’t necessarily a reason not to play. Now if there’s doubt, let’s let them out.”

Returning to competitive golf, Roshaven said, has been a natural next step in the larger process of keeping the sport active in the face of a pandemic that put so many other activities on hold.

“Our No. 1 goal when all this happened was to look out for daily play. What can we do to stay open?” he said. “As we went through that and saw what would work, we’re just adding things back in. We’ve removed the PVC (inserts from cups); we were able to put rakes in place.”

Findley, the new 9-Hole Ladies champion, noted her typical playing schedule hasn’t changed much over the months.

“I play every Monday with my Monday group,” said the Village Palo Alto resident. “I play with my husband, we have a couples group on Thursdays. We’ve played every week. Isn’t that a joy? Golf has been a real saving grace during this period.”

Said Roshaven: “We feel we’ve kind of cracked the code on playing golf. Now we’re just throwing another avenue into it.”

Welcome back, tournament golf.

“When I play with the neighbors, I usually just play against me,” said Gary Focken (Village of Belle Aire), who held a share of the first-day Super Seniors lead before finishing behind Joe Lukasik. “Now to have this again — competition is fun.”

Senior Writer Jeff Shain can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5283, or jeff.shain@thevillagesmedia.com.