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Southern golf's gem
Former Georgia Southern golfer Drew Lethem makes his way past a blooming Dogwood tree down the fairway of the 7th hole at Forest Heights Country Club during the first round of the 2009 Schenkel Invitational in this March 20, 2009, file photo. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/staff

    Former Georgia Southern sports information director Tom McClelland, who now holds a similar position at East Carolina, was not a golfer.
    However, McClelland knew a good thing when he saw it, and he was unabashedly proud of the Schenkel Invitational golf tournament which the Eagles will be hosting for the 32nd time March 18-20.
     “You really need to come and see this thing,” McClelland told an out of town writer several years ago. “We’ve got great teams with really good golfers, and the golf course is beautiful with all the flowers in bloom.
    “It’s a mini-Masters.”
    McClelland, of course, moved on, but the Schenkel remains, and continues to draw some of the top names in college golf to Forest Heights Country Club which hosts the tournament.
    This year’s three day 54-hole event is no exception with the likes of defending champion Auburn, Florida, Notre Dame, North Carolina, Virginia, Minnesota, Ole Miss and North Florida in the 15 team field representing six conferences, and 11 different states.
    Rounding out the field are LSU, N. C. State, Tennessee, Kentucky, Vanderbilt,   Mississippi State, and the host Eagles.
    The Gators are ranked third in the nation while Auburn, LSU, UVA and N.C. State are ranked in the Top 20. The Fighting Irish are 26th.
    So, what’s the big attraction that makes these schools want to come to tiny Statesboro?
    The course itself is an attraction in that it is one of the finest many of the teams will play, but Eagle standout Logan Blondell and Coach Larry Mays say it comes down to hospitality.
    The tourney differs in that it is put on by the community, not Georgia Southern, and visiting players and coaches get the red carpet treatment.
    “The course and the strength of the field are all great,” Blondell said. “But, the biggest thing is the hospitality. The way you’re treated here is unlike any other tournament.
    “Typically when we play in a tournament you play a practice round on Friday and then eat on your own,” Blondell said. “On Saturday you play 36 holes and then eat on your own. You play Sunday and leave town. You show up, play, and leave.
    “It’s not like that at all here. Players talk about our tournament. They all look forward to coming because of the reception they get. People in the community come out to watch you play. At other tournaments it may be just parents or friends.”
    When teams come to the Schenkel following Thursday’s practice round there’s a Phi Mu cookout for players at the Bishop Building. There’s a barbeque for coaches and patrons at The Belle House.
    After first round play on Friday there’s a coaches, players and patrons dinner and on Saturday evening there’s a cookout for coaches, players and patrons.
    No one is eating on their own.
    “Southern hospitality,” Mays said. “The community involvement is tremendous.
    “The first year I was here (2000) there were 500 people at the 18th green on Sunday,” Mays recalled. “That is not something you see in college golf — it’s not often you see a crowd at a college golf tournament.”
    NCAA selection guidelines have changed over the years, and currently schools are required to have at least a .500 or better record during the regular season in order to be considered for the tournament if they do not win their conference tournament.
    That rule change now has some coaches avoiding tournaments with strong fields.
    Still, they come to the Schenkel.
    This will be LSU and Tennessee’s 29th appearance. Auburn will be in the field for the 28th time while N.C. State and Florida will be making their 27th trip to the Boro.
    Florida, incidentally, has one of the top players in college golf in Bank Vongvanij who is ranked third in the nation.