News from the Tennessee Valley Sports

Golfers can find a home at Spirit tourney
Local volunteers provide
housing for visiting players

By Michael Wetzel
and Ashley Hargrove

Many participants of the annual Daikin America Spirit of America golf tournament don’t have to think long when asked about the tournament’s allure.

They’re quick to answer: the tough course, the tough field and the hospitality dished out all week. Some tournament volunteers open their houses to 152 amateurs playing this week at the Burningtree Country Club, and about 60 of the golfers are quite thankful for it.

“Housing started when the tournament started 40 years ago,” said Marilyn Hebert, director of housing for the tournament. “We started out with a few participants and now it has grown tremendously. The golfers always say how nice it is to be housed, and it’s just a way of helping with their expenses.”

Some of this year’s golfers who are finding a friendly home opposed to a hotel room are coming from as far away as Australia and the Philippines.

Hebert said the number of golfers housed this year is nearly double that of 2006.

“Housing at the Spirit is great,” said Justin Perry, who finished tied for fourth last year.

Perry, a senior on the Western Kentucky golf team and son of PGA Tour veteran Kenny Perry, is returning to Stephen and Beth Sprague’s home this year.

“The Spragues were so nice all week,” Perry said. “They provided the food and didn’t let me spend any money. It was a big help staying with them. It made the tournament so much more fun.”

Beth Sprague said her roots in the Bluegrass State make hosting a Kentucky golfer that much special.

A native of Henderson, Ky., Beth said her family initially housed another Western Kentucky golfer, Brent Long, last year and invited his roommate, Perry, along. The Spragues also took in a third college golfer, Cody Hill of David Lipscomb, last year.

“The boys were so well-mannered last year,” said “Miss Beth” as she was known to her guests. “They were very tidy and not a problem.”

She said when the day’s play was over, the trio came home, showered, watched The Golf Channel, e-mailed, checked sports scores on the Internet and visited with other participants staying near Burningtree.

She has this year’s menu already set, and it parallels last year’s.

A night out at a Decatur restaurant Wednesday night, and spaghetti on Thursday. Burningtree offers a dinner party Friday.

“We’ll have barbecue chicken Saturday, if they don’t want pizza from the club,” she said.

On Sunday, their houseguests leave.

“But if they want to stay, we’ll have plenty of food for them,” she said.

She said she’ll have honey-baked ham, Mexican dip and pizza squares ready at snack times, too.

She said she did a load of laundry for her 2006 guests, but told them, “I don’t do ironing.”

She added Long did a snappy job with the iron.

“They become a part of the family,” she said. “They have so much energy, and they were very polite and so helpful in the kitchen.”

She said their grandson, Chase Sprague of Roanoke, Va., also will visit during the tournament this year. Last year, the houseguests autographed a hat for Chase.

Burningtree members Bill and Geri Knable are in their fourth year as hosts. Russell and Patty Laughlin are in their fifth. The Laughlins said that beginning Tuesday, they will host two golfers from Arkansas and another two from LSU.

“They are not much trouble at all,” Geri Knable said. “We really don’t see them a lot because they spend most of their time at the golf course. The most important thing is making sure they have food, even though I never can get them to eat much. This year we are housing two golfers from Arkansas.”

Geri Knable said that having the tournament always brings excitement to the club.

“I always look forward to it every year,” she said. “I enjoy housing the young men because it kind of gives you an extra interest in the tournament. We will follow the young men we house.”

For many of the participants who have housed in the past, coming to play in the tournament is almost like going home to their second family.

“There are some who ask to stay with the same family every year,” Hebert said. “With us having so many people who had an interest in housing this year, it was a bit difficult. A lot of them play in teams so we try to keep them together. That just makes it easier on both the families and the players.”

Hebert said the parents of the players have had nothing but positive feedback about the tournament.

“The player’s parents are always saying that it is one of the best tournaments around,” Hebert said. “We are continuing to get new participants every year. We’re pleased that it has become one of the highest tournaments around. That says a lot about the club. I’m looking forward to getting it started.”

Co-tournament chairman Andy Villarreal said he knows that the generous volunteers hosting golfers adds to the quality of the event.

“We certainly appreciate all of our volunteers and members for housing the golfers,” Villarreal said. “For some of these guys, it might mean the difference in coming here or going to another tournament.”

But what about some advice for hosting families?

“Make sure you have plenty of apple juice, Gatorade and soft drinks,” Beth Sprague said. “It was hot last year, and it will be hot again this year.

Daikin America Spirit of America 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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