In 1924, Lakewood Country Club was a new course winding through a new neighborhood, Lakewood Estates. It was the beginning of St. Petersburg's first land boom, and developer Charles Hall couldn't sell lots in his new neighborhood fast enough. The Herbert Strong-designed course was 6,718 yards from the tips and acted as a lure to attract northerners to southern St. Petersburg. To further bolster publicity, the course in 1927 added a tournament, called the New Year's Invitational, which was open to any amateur in the country.
The name of the course changed in 2000 to St. Petersburg Country Club, but everything else has remained the same. It is still called Lakewood Estates, the course has the same 18 holes it had when it opened, and the New Year's Invitational is in its 83rd straight year as the oldest continually running invitational in the southeast.
Play begins today with a field of 128, including mid amateurs and seniors.
"At that time (1920s) it wasn't uncommon for a local course to have an invitational tournament in the winter,'' tournament chairman Richard Hope said. "Places like Sarasota, Tampa, St. Petersburg, they all had tournaments. But for whatever reason, this is the only one that has survived all these years.''
The tournament has attracted some of the best regional amateurs. For some, such as Johnny Revolta in 1928, Bob Goalby in 1956 and Gary Koch in 1974, a win was a stepping-stone to a long PGA Tour career.
For others, such as Buddy Alexander, Jack Veghte and John Corzilius, the tournament was an annual event in their sterling amateur careers.
Now it's heavily loaded with college players. Of the 79 in the championship field, 69 come from colleges such as Eckerd, Stetson, Tampa and Florida, and as far away as Coastal Carolina, Indiana and California.
As usual, stellar players are in the field. Peter Uihlein tied for fourth last year as a high school senior and now attends Oklahoma State. Will Strickler, a senior at Florida, also tied for fourth last season. David Johnson of Central Florida was the Florida State Golf Association's match-play champ in 2008.
Finding a quality field for the New Year's Invitational is usually not difficult, although there were challenges this year because it falls a week after New Year's Day.
"When the tournament falls late, like it did this year because New Year's Day was on a Thursday, we get less players,'' SPCC head professional Terry Decker said. "Last year we had 30 players on the waiting list, but this year we didn't have a waiting list. That's mostly because (school) classes have started again, and some of the players can't miss that many class days.''
The invitational acts as a tuneup for the spring college golf season. And lately it has also been on a roll with its past champions. J.B. Holmes (2003), Brandt Snedeker (2004) and Jeff Overton (2005) are successful on the PGA Tour. Luke List, 2006 winner, and 2007 champ Major Manning are Nationwide Tour players who will likely end up on the PGA Tour eventually.
"We sent out information to about 30 college coaches,'' said Hope, who has run the tournament since 1991. "Some of the coaches feel like it's a good experience. It's a 72-hole stroke-play tournament, which they don't get too many of. And if they have new players, they like to see how they do.''
A downside to the tournament is that members don't get tee times for four days during a popular winter month. Hope said the grumbling is at a minimum because the New Year's Invitational has outlasted any of the members.
"It's good revenue, and we get some recognition,'' Hope said. "But more than anything, it's tradition. We've been able to maintain it through all these years."
Rodney Page can be reached at page@sptimes, email@example.com or (727) 893-8810.
Notable past champions
Player Year Fact
A.T. Cooper1927 First winner
Johnny Revolta1928 Won 19 PGA Tour events, including the 1935 PGA Championship
Jim Caputo1939-44 Only six-time winner
Bob Goalby1956 Won the 1968 Masters after Roberto de Vincenzo signed an incorrect scorecard
Buddy Alexander1972, 1976-78, '87 Florida golf coach and son of former St. Pete CC head professional Skip Alexander
Gary Koch >>1974 Six-time PGA Tour winner and Tampa resident
Gary Hallberg1980 Three-time PGA Tour winner
Len Mattiace1986 Two-time PGA Tour winner
Darron Stiles1995 Has bounced between the PGA and Nationwide tours; on the PGA Tour full time this year
Ryuji Imada1996 Tampa resident; won his first PGA tournament in 2008
Steve Scott1999 Most notable for playing Tiger Woods in the 1996 U.S. Amateur final
Jeff Klauk2000 Tournament record-holder with 267
John Corzilius2002 Last noncollegiate golfer to win
J.B. Holmes2003 Known as John Holmes then, PGA Tour member and Ryder Cup player
Brandt Snedeker >>2004 Broke through in 2007 for his first PGA Tour victory
Jeff Overton2005 Indiana alum is promising PGA player
Luke List2006 Former U.S. Amateur runnerup
Bryce Ledford2008 Turned professional and will not defend his title