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Len Ziehm On Golf

NASHVILLE, Tenn.: Hosting LPGA tourneys has benefitted Hermitage

OLD HICKORY, Tenn. – Hermitage, a 36-hole public facility on the outskirts of Nashville, Tenn., isn’t the only club to see a longstanding pro golf tournament leave its premises or disappear altogether.

On the PGA Tour, En-Joie Country Club in Endicott, N.Y., hosted the B.C. Open for 34 years – the last in 2005. Warwick Hills, in Grand Blanc, Mich., welcomed the Buick Open for 31 years before leaving in 2009. Oakwood Country Club, in Coal Valley, IL., hosted a tournament now known as the John Deere Classic for 24 years, until 1999. And another Illinois course, Cog Hill in Lemont, was the site of two big-time championships – the Western Open and BMW Championship – for 20 years. The Western was discontinued, and the BMW Championship moved to Chicago’s north suburbs this year.

From the LPGA side, there’s The Rail course in Springfield, IL. It was an LPGA tournament site for 30 years, the last being in 2006.

Golf tournaments come and go. With the courses that host them, it’s not like that. Most all of those former tournament sites are still around. They go through an adjustment period, of course. Owners need to re-position their course in the marketplace and re-invent themselves. Some might even be better off without the annual hassle a big tournament inevitably brings.

“Not having a tournament allows you to have open play three more weeks of the year,’’ said Katherine Jemsek, president of the family-owned 72-hole Cog Hill public complex. “There’s less disruption for regular players. Players with permanent tee times usually had to take at least one week off plus the week of the tournament.’’

In reality, the effect of no longer hosting a big event varies from course to course.

“There’s not a transition,’’ said Jemsek. “You just go back to doing day to day business. It’s just that you don’t have the excitement gearing up for a big event.’’

Mike Eller, the Hermitage owner, has gone through it all. He got into big tournament mode early. His first course hosted one of the LPGA’s most popular stops, the Sara Lee Classic, from 1988-2002. Hermitage wasn’t even open when Eller consented to host the tournament.

“Craziest thing I ever did,’’ said Eller, who was on the 17th green conferring with an agronomist when a Sara Lee official called. That was back in 1986.

“He said `We’ve chosen you,’’’ recalled Eller. “I jumped up and down coming out of the clubhouse, then looked around and realized we hadn’t even mowed it yet.’’

A few courses have landed big events before their official opening in recent years, but it wasn’t the same at Hermitage.

“Now they can get six years to make a course right,’’ said Eller. “Ours was a scary situation, but we worked hard and I had a very, very generous partner.’’

The late Ray Danner, who passed away four years ago, was chief executive officer and chairman of the Shoney’s and Captain D’s restaurant chains. Danner had no reservations about taking on such a big project immediately.

“He said `This course will be all right or chances are I’ll go broke – and I’m not going broke,’’’ Eller recalled. “The putty wasn’t even dry (on the clubhouse) when (the LPGA) pulled their trailers in. We’re really, really good at being faced with situations. We view them as opportunities and love making them happen.’’

The Sara Lee Classic had some great champions – Nancy Lopez, Laura Davies, Meg Mallon (twice), Annika Sorenstam – and was a big deal annually in a community then lacking in professional sports of any kind. The tourney thrived until Sara Lee dropped its sponsorship after a 12-year run.

“Twelve years with one sponsor, that’s a long time,’’ said Eller. “Like everything else, there’s times when you need to take a breath of fresh air to try something else. Even when they took the tournament to another course for a year, that didn’t bother us really.’’

Indeed, Hermitage did move on. That first course, now called General’s Retreat, was designed by Gary Baird. Now a Nashville resident, Baird came from California where he had worked for renowned architect Robert Trent Jones Sr. for 12 years. Hermitage was Baird’s first start-to-finish project and – at 6,822 yards — has been a fine course for both men and women.

Shortly before the Sara Lee Classic’s demise Eller added a second 18-holer, named President’s Reserve. Designed by Atlanta architect Denis Griffiths on three times the land used for the original course, this layout played at 7,157 yards when it opened in 2000. Like its predecessor, Hermitage’s second course has no housing but it does have 45 acres of wetlands.

“The land there is totally different (from the first course). It feels like it’s in South Carolina,’’ said Eller. “It offers the people here something that they’d have to travel a long way to find.’’

Golfers have traveled a long way to find Hermitage.

“Our business is broken down to one-third local players, one-third tourists and one-third corporate outings,’’ said Eller.

Apparently they like Eller’s most unusual feature. He has 25 sheep grazing on the two courses.

“I like things that are different, but not too far off the wall,’’ he said. “I was playing at Whistling Straits (a Wisconsin course that hosted the 2004 and 2010 PGA Championships and the 2007 U.S. Senior Open) and a sheep breezed right by me. I thought, this is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. As soon as I got back home I started looking for some sheep.’’

He found some in eastern Tennessee and went with his wife to Virginia to pick up some more. The sheep have set Hermitage apart from other Tennessee courses, and they haven’t scared away tournament organizers, either.

In addition to the run of LPGA stops Hermitage has landed three national Executive Women’s Golf Assn. events on its original course and the LPGA Legends Tour staged its ISPS Handa Cup team event there this year. The layout, with its well-placed mounding, remains an excellent spectator course.

On the men’s side, Hermitage has hosted the Society of Seniors event and had feelers from the PGA Tour five years ago about holding a tournament on the newer course. Eller believes that’s still a possibility, but it’s not his primary focus for the future.

“Now we’re concentrating on adding a lodge,’’ he said. “There’s not a course in Nashville or in middle Tennessee that has one directly connected to a golf course. For that you’ve got to have 36 holes, and there’s not many of us around. We’ve got the property for it, and the perfect setting, too. It’d be great.’’

The return of the LPGA Legends is a possibility, too. The circuit for stars who have passed their 45th birthday contracted for one-year U.S. vs. the World weekend team match at Hermitage in October. It was deemed a success, and Eller told the post-tourney gathering that “It was such an honor to host….We love to have company, and you’re family. We hope we can do this again.’’

Hermitage took the Legends event at the last minute because Eller thought “this would really be fun.’’ It was — for the players, spectators and Hermitage staff.

“I didn’t realize how much I missed it until the tents started going up,’’ said Eller. “Then the ladies started coming in, and it felt great inside. It really did. They’re so approachable, and it’s amazing how they play. We’ve always had a great connection with women’s golf. It’s a natural here for us. It’s been a blessing.’’