The early days of this week have been filled with low temperatures that have apparently served as the entirety of Statesboro’s winter.
But the sun is expected to be shining - with temperatures on the rise - as the surest sign of spring in Statesboro tees off Friday morning.
For the 38th consecutive year, Forest Heights Country Club will provide the setting for the Schenkel Invitational. The tournament allows the Georgia Southern men’s golf team to stay in town for an event. And as the years have gone by, the Schenkel has transformed from a home date for the Eagles into a marquee stop for many of the nation’s top teams.
“This is always a highlight of our season and something that we look forward to each year,” GS coach Carter Collins said. “This is a weekend where our guys always want to play their best. Not only do they know that they’ll be competing against some great teams, but they also want to play well for our fans and for everyone in the community that helps to make this such a great event.”
This season’s Schenkel has outdone itself in terms of field strength.
Vanderbilt and Florida - currently ranked first and second in the country, respectively - will be favorites to compete for the tournament title, with Vanderbilt looking to defend its 2016 Schenkel championship. The Commodores started posting birdies from the get-go last season, torching the course to the tune of a 41-under par team score and a 10-stroke victory.
“The tradition of the Schenkel really is so neat,” Vanderbilt coach Scott Limbaugh told the tournament committee. “It’s a first-class tournament that the community supports and embraces. We are honored to participate.”
“We all love coming to Statesboro and playing in the Schenkel,” North Florida coach Scott Schroeder said to the committee. “It is Southern Hospitality at its finest. The guys talk about (the) event all year.”
North Florida (35), Jacksonville (37), Kentucky (45), N.C. State (46) and Lipscomb (49) are other top-50 squads in town for the tournament. Rounding out this year’s field are College of Charleston, Iowa, Georgia Southern, UAB, Notre Dame, Kansas State and East Tennessee State.
Teams know they’ll need their A-game to compete for a victory at the Schenkel and Collins said that the course is in especially pristine and challenging shape this year. But there is another huge component that makes a weekend in Statesboro a must-play for so many teams.
“I really have to hand it to Chad Avret and the tournament committee,” Collins said. “They do such a great job of putting on this event and creating such a great environment for all of our visiting teams.”
Tournament participants didn’t have to wait until Friday for the fun to start. Players and coaches assisted in conducting a kids clinic Wednesday evening. Thursday practice rounds were followed up with a players cookout sponsored by Georgia Southern’s Phi Mu sorority, as well as a separate barbeque for coaches and tournament patrons Thursday night.
Perhaps helped by tournament dates that often include St. Patrick’s Day, the Schenkel also has a reputation for bigger and more supportive galleries that usually aren’t seen until postseason tournaments.
“It’s something that we’ve gotten a lot of compliments on from teams in the past,” Collins said. “It’s getting near the end of the season. Everyone is looking forward to conference championships and the postseason, so I think having a lot of people on the course can help guys to get in that mindset.”
After playing qualifying rounds to earn their spot on the tournament team, Jake Storey, Steven Fisk, Cody O’Toole, Archer Price and Brett Barron will represent the Eagles. The quintet will play 18 holes on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Each day, the four best scores will be counted toward the team’s total for the day.
Georgia Southern has yet to win a tournament this season, but Collins is confident that his still-young team is improving heading into the most crucial month of the season. This week, the Eagles will look to stare down the talented field and repeat the magic found in 2014, when the tournament hosts won their own event for the first time.