IMG to launch Leadbetter tour for juniors

Victoria Tanco won the Annika Invitational to start 2010.

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The path to elite junior golf just acquired a much-needed steppingstone. IMG Academies will launch the IMG Leadbetter Junior Golf Tour in August, creating 20 elite events on which junior players can set their sights.

The tournaments will mirror the American Junior Golf Association model, and will even use the same code of conduct and rules card system. David Leadbetter, the new tour’s patron and co-founder, called the AJGA a role model for other junior tours around the country.

He hopes the Leadbetter tour will help junior players who have been unable to qualify for AJGA events prepare themselves for competition at the next level.

“(The AJGA is) the PGA Tour of junior golf. We’re looking at being the Nationwide Tour,” said Leadbetter, a member of the AJGA Board of Directors.

Working in collaboration with the AJGA, IMG Academies has created a schedule of 20 events, mostly in the Southeast and Southwest. Players can earn Performance Based Entry status, or PBE, for AJGA events from all 20 tournaments.

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Sam Zussman, managing director of IMG Academies, said the Leadbetter tour is not meant to compete with AJGA events, but will operate with their support as a much-needed supplement.

“What we aim to do is actually be as close as possible to mirroring the quality of player field and quality of event that the AJGA puts up,” Zussman said. “We see a big variance between where the AJGA is and where all the other events are in the code of conduct enforced, in the personnel involved, in the quality of the golf courses, in the value provided for the price charged.”

The Leadbetter tour will make its debut Aug. 13-15 at the Waldorf Astoria Golf Club in Orlando, Fla., and the season will run through May 22 of 2011. Zussman said it is possible the tournament schedule could grow if other dates become available.

“If we do get available dates in the summer, we will most definitely use it,” he said. “Even when the AJGA is operating, it’s very tough to get into.”

During its first season, Zussman expects the Leadbetter tour to have about 1,000 members, with the optimal player field at 84 golfers. All events will span three days (Friday-Sunday), and will offer the Friday practice round free of charge. Tournaments will be played on top courses selected by IMG and Hilton, and will include a learning component with topics ranging from swing instruction to the rules of golf to nutrition. Leadbetter will be on-hand when possible, and Zussman said videotaped Leadbetter lectures also are a possibility.

The qualifying format for Leadbetter tour tournaments is yet to be determined, but Leadbetter said the goal will be to create a high-quality field.

Despite being run by IMG Academies, the Leadbetter tour will not exist solely for IMG students. Leadbetter envisions the IMG students who are in the field as being a draw for other competitors, as it will offer less-experienced players a chance to “cross swords” with academy players.

One of those players will be Victoria Tanco, Golfweek’s top-ranked junior and a two-time Rolex Player of the Year.

“When I heard about (the tour) I said that’s a good idea because you’re going to need more tournaments so everyone can play and you can compete and get better in your game,” Tanco said.

Leadbetter stressed the importance of tournament experience at the junior level.

“If you’re going to use golf as a springboard for whatever you’re going to do in life, competing at the highest level is very important,” Leadbetter said of the tour. “It just gives young players the opportunity of competing at the highest level.”

When it comes to growing the game, it’s a step in the right direction.

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