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SUNDAY, JULY 1, 2007
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Philippine national team in 40th Spirit of America golf

By Michael Wetzel
mwetzel@decaturdaily.com · 340-2462

The objective: To lure the nation’s top 152 collegiate and amateur golfers to Decatur.

While Daikin America Spirit of America golf tournament officials say the task is tall, it isn’t out of reach. This year’s field, which tees off Thursday morning, is full, and another 20 players or so are on a waiting list.

For the $225 registration fee, golfers receive apparel, golf balls, food and drinks and at least three rounds of play during the week.

“No doubt, this year is one of the stronger fields we’ve ever had here,” said Jim Settles, club professional at Burningtree Country Club, site of the 40th annual event. “We’ve got players from the Philippines and Australia signed up, and one of the top amateurs in Alabama is coming. We’re about ready to go.”

Last year, 131 golfers teed off.

The seven-member Philippines National team is touring the United States this summer, and three are making the Spirit stop.

At 4-under par for 54 holes, Anthony Fernando finished seventh in last week’s Greystone Invitational on the Legacy course in Hoover. He will be joined in Decatur by Filipino teammates Michael Alejandro and Gene Bondoc.

“They have very legit shots at winning this thing,” Settles said.

Fernando made news in his homeland in February when he recorded a hole-in-one in the Konica Minolta Pro-Am. He was awarded a new truck for the shooting the ace, but donated the vehicle to the Philippine Amateur Golf Development Foundation to keep his amateur status.

Settles pointed out that Brent Watson of New South Wales, Australia, adds to the international flavor of this year’s tournament on a tad longer Burningtree course.

Tournament Co-chairman Andy Villarreal said the course is playing about 150 yards longer with three tee boxes moved back and five others renovated.

“We keep working to make the tournament a better event,” he said. “We are always pushing for a better field and more points for the amateurs. Handicaps seem to get lower and lower every year.

“The top guys want to play against the best players, and we feel like we are offering a stronger field each year here.”

To sweeten the pot this year, the Spirit winner will receive a spot in the NGA Hooters tournament in Choctaw, Miss., on Aug. 6-12.

“It is certainly nice to have a partnership with the Hooters,” Villarreal said.

“For many of these young golfers, the pro tours are the next step for them and getting into a pro Hooters event has to be enticing.”

Two years ago, Burningtree hosted a NGA Hooters tournament.

Villarreal said the tournament committee is aiming for a field of 75 percent college linksters and 25 percent top amateurs.

He said this year’s field is about a 70-30 mix.

Last year’s champion, Chris Rogers, a senior at Ole Miss, will be absent from the 40th field, but there won’t be a shortage of talented golfers at Burningtree beginning Thursday.

Sporting a plus-4.7 handicap, UAB sophomore Blake West of Montgomery is considered the top golfer entered. Western Kentucky senior Justin Perry, son of PGA Tour veteran Kenny Perry, is back. His 285 total in 2006 tied him for fourth overall.

Perry said he is working on his swing to improve on his 2006 Spirit finish.

“I love the course,” he said. “It was in great shape last year, and I remember I putted well. The greens were beautiful. I’ve been working to get my driver in the fairway, that’s the big thing now.”

Chris Wells of Mobile, who just completed his senior year at LSU, is returning, too.

In early June, he won the 88th Louisiana Golf Association Amateur Championship with a 72-hole total of 290.

Burningtree Country Club members Dale Porter, Trent Howell and Casey Thomas will try to protect their home turf. Andrew Villarreal (Samford), Michael Daniels (Auburn) and Stewart Whitt (Alabama) are area golfers playing with college experience.

Four junior golfers will be competing for the Bradley Johnson Memorial Award, given to the low junior.

Past participants in the Spirit have included PGA Tour winners Andy Bean, Stewart Cink and Huntsville native Spike McRoy.

Daikin America Spirit of America golf schedule

What: A four-round amateur golf tournament featuring some of the region’s top amateurs and collegiate players. The 152-man field will be cut to the low 50 and ties after Saturday’s round.

When: Tuesday — third annual Tyler Williamson Scramble. Gala begins at 6 p.m. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased at the door at the Burningtree Country Club. Dress is casual. Proceeds from the scramble and gala go to Parents and Children Together.

Wednesday — practice round.

Thursday-Sunday — competition rounds.

Where: Burningtree Country Club in Southeast Decatur. Admission to walk the grounds is free.

Michael Wetzel

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