On Grand Strand Golf: Swing Thought Tour making changes to attract players

The Grand Strand-based developmental Swing Thought Tour is set to embark on the 2016 season with some new ideas and policies in the hopes of attracting more members, but without tournaments in the Myrtle Beach area.

The tour, which was formerly known as the National Golf Association Tour and NGA Hooters Tour with headquarters in Little River, is set to stage more than 100 tournaments through its National Pro Series and four to six state/regional circuits.

None are scheduled to be played on the Strand, as the tour’s leaders have struggled to find enough players and sponsors to support events in the area, even on its Carolina Series, which has been played predominantly on the Strand for the past few years.

“If you look at the history of our numbers, we’re drawing away from Myrtle Beach,” said Swing Thought Tour president Robin Waters of Loris. “I wouldn’t say we’re leaving Myrtle Beach, but the golf market is driving us into the larger, more commercial markets. You go where the sponsorships and players are.”

The Carolina Series’ more than 20 events in 2016 are scheduled to largely be played in the Charlotte and Columbia areas, and the schedule has already begun.

Golf Interact LLC, the Houston-based parent company of the Swing Thought brand, acquired the NGA Tour and renamed it in September 2014, then acquired the eGolf Tour based in Charlotte last August and combined the two to create the largest developmental golf tour in the nation.

“We’re putting a lot of resources in the Charlotte market after taking over the Tour last year,” Waters said. “Myrtle Beach, as far as professional golf, the players aren’t here that used to be here year-round years ago. We’re assuming with the eGolf acquisition a lot of the golfers are located between Charlotte and Raleigh. We believe there are a lot of good, quality players there that want good, quality events.”

The National Pro Series tees off next week with an event at Kinderlou Forest Golf Club in Valdosta, Ga. There are 15 events scheduled from March through August in the Carolinas, Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Texas and Florida, and Waters intends to expand west as he is organizing four events over the final four months of the year in California, Nevada, Texas and Florida.

“We’re taking our time to make sure we get the dates and host facilities right,” Waters said.

Developmental tours in the U.S. have taken a hit over the past three years as the PGA Tour has taken over or created tours in Canada, Latin America and China that are affiliated with the Tour and give players incentives to enter the PGA Tour system.

“We’re doing the best we can to keep players’ dreams alive in the states,” said Waters, who declined to disclose tour membership numbers in 2015 or ’16. “Coming through last year, and the year prior, we feel we’ve come through the tougher times. With the resources we have behind us and people involved, we’re optimistic. We like the trends and we’re ahead of last year.”

Swing Thought Tour operators are trying to make it more attractive for players to play domestically with changes or improvements to the tour model this year.

They hope to attract players with features including a 12-month wraparound membership, more member and winner benefits, increased playing opportunities with the creation of two more state tours with two more being negotiated, tournament locations close to either PGA Tour or qualifiers, six exemptions in events, expedited payouts, lower entry fees and more host housing at events.

Waters said he’s seeing a mix of very young players joining the tour, and those who have attempted the affiliates in Latin America, Canada or China.

“We’re seeing a lot of players this year that have tried it and are going to stay home in the states and try a lot more [PGA Tour and] qualifiers,” Waters said.

Swing Thought events are often in areas where there are qualifiers on Thursdays for PGA Tour events or Mondays for events, and some Swing Thought tournaments will end on Saturdays rather than Sundays to give competitors a travel day.

The top five on the 2016 money list receive reimbursement for Tour Q-School entry fees. The tour also has six exemptions into events for top performing players at different intervals of the season.

A 12-month membership is $2,000 and begins and ends on the registration date.

“We think we have a good product with year-round wraparound memberships. That’s something no other tour does,” Waters said.

Entry fees are $975 per event for members and $1,275 for non-members, and events are either 54 or 72 holes. Guaranteed purses have dropped from $140,000 to $120,000 – though at least a couple $150,000 tournaments are planned – and entry fees per event have dropped about $200.

Players now have more options to be paid winnings, as they can forward them as credits for the next event’s entry fees, accept direct deposit or pick them up at the next tour stop. “We’re trying to keep ways for the players to have a steady cash flow,” Waters said. “We know the players are out there, they just can’t play as consistently.”

Many players will have opportunities to earn more money with participation in pro-ams, long drive contests and shootouts with an amateur partner at most tour stops, and junior and veterans clinics are part of most events.

They will also have opportunities for free housing with host individuals or families at events. “It’s really a big thing for the players and it’s great community relationship building,” Waters said.

State series memberships are $950 for 12 months or $650 for three months, and entry fees will generally range from $400-$550.

State series will be in Texas, Florida, the Carolinas and Georgia, and additional tours are being negotiated in Phoenix and California that could start by the summer or fall. Waters has been interviewing potential series directors. “We want to grow west and have a national footprint,” Waters said.

In the state series, winners of 18-hole events will earn free entry into 36-hole events, and 36-hole wins earn complimentary entry into the next Pro Series event.

Golf Interact is involved in golf marketing and bringing new products to the golf market, while Swing Thought is a theory of making golf more simple and less technical.

Aberdeen back to 18

Aberdeen Country Club on S.C. 9 in Longs is back to 18 holes after being limited to nine holes for three days last week.

The Meadows nine at the 27-hole complex reopened Thursday after rain and a rising Waccamaw River forced operators to close the nine holes on Monday.

General manager and head pro Steve Shaffer said the course has come through the recent closure and a longer closure after widespread flooding on the Grand Strand in early October.

He doesn’t anticipate having to close any more holes and expects the other nine holes on the course, the Woodlands, to reopen March 1.

“It’s ready to go now but we’re doing a couple things with maintenance. The whole course is in great shape,” Shaffer said. “We had no issues with any diseases or anything like that. In October, the only issue we had was getting to some of the areas to spray for your typical stuff. Other than the water on the grass we’ve had no issues with conditioning.”

Fairways, tees and greens were overseeded with winter grasses in early November, and Shaffer hopes to lift the cart path-only restriction later this week.