Want to play the Rio Verde? Get in line

Western Michigan players walk up a fairway at Rio Verde Country Club, a private, 36-hole facility just outside of Scottsdale, Ariz.

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Sometimes it takes a community to put on a golf tournament. 

Eight years ago, Western Michigan coach Cindy Trout had the novel idea to host a college tournament 2,000 miles away from Kalamazoo, Mich., in the Arizona desert, effectively creating a spring break getaway for both players and parents with an elite college competition at its core. The idea was born from Trout’s visits to Rio Verde Country Club, a private, 36-hole facility located about 20 miles outside of Scottsdale, Ariz., where her parents had owned a vacation home since the early 80s. 

photo

Courtesy Western Michigan

Trout was only thinking aloud when she mentioned the idea to Jay Critcher, Rio Verde’s former head professional, in 2002. She nearly fell off her chair when Critcher said that the club would be interested in hosting the tournament.

That’s when the planning began.

Because of a lack of hotels in the area – and as a cost-saver for participating teams – players and coaches are housed with host families. When 90 players and 18 coaches, plus a dozen or so assistant coaches and a handful of media relations directors and athletic trainers arrived in the small residential golf community this week, 93 of the roughly 800 homes in the area opened their doors to welcome them. 

“It’s just a great way for our members to get involved with the players and the teams and just kind of open up their homes and open up the golf course for them to play,” current head professional Darryl Janisse said. “It’s probably the most unique thing about this tournament.”

How does all that home cooking and host-family bonding sit with the players?

“I heard a story the other day from a coach who said he has a senior who has played three years and will be back again this week,” Trout said to sum up the tournament-community relationship. “She’s getting married in the summer, and her hosts here in Rio Verde are coming to the wedding.”

The tournament debuted in 2003 as the East/West Rio Verde Invite, and Western Michigan won the inaugural event. In the years since, Trout said she has seen other schools begin to host similar tournaments that rely heavily on host families. 

Entering the eighth playing of the Rio Verde Invitational, which runs Friday (March 5) through Sunday, the tournament has become so popular that there is a waiting list to play. The field reached 18 teams for the 2010 version. When Trout sends an e-mail at the beginning of June to solidify the field, it’s usually full by mid-month. She likes to keep the competition tough in Rio Verde, but also remains loyal to the teams who have been making the trip since the very beginning.

“We like to have Midwest schools, we like to have the schools that haven’t been able to compete yet or if they have, it’s just been once and they’re ready to be at a golf course that’s fair but challenging and in an environment where they can practice and kind of get the rust off from the winter,” she said.

Nailing down so many host families might seem like a difficult task, but Rio Verde runs on a fairly ingenious system. Each team is given a housing captain in Rio Verde, who then hits the pavement around the community, recruiting volunteers to house players and coaches from that school. Local retiree Helen Quigley has been coordinating it all for the past six years.

“You’ll see so much of our community out in our golf carts following the tournament,” Quigley said, after gushing about the talent level of the players that flock to the Arizona desert every spring for the unique tournament. “It’s just a fun week for everyone.”

Quigley qualifies it as a huge success from both the player and Rio Verde resident perspective. Like many other area families, she remains in contact with the players who have stayed in her home through the years. Two of them have turned professional since their Western Michigan days (Laura Bevaird plays on the Duramed Futures Tour, and Erin Thorne has appeared in events on the SunCoast Tour, a developmental tour in Florida).

For Elise Swartout, a Western Michigan senior playing in her fourth and final Rio Verde, this tournament provides some of the best memories during the year because of the host families. She’ll also never forget the location.

“You can see the mountains from anywhere, which is unbelievable first of all, especially coming from Michigan,” she said.

Swartout’s parents are among those who made the trek to the desert this week to watch the tournament, making it even more special.

Love of the Rio Verde seems to be a common sentiment. Trout said she’s heard other players declare they’re going to someday find a way back to the area, whether through work, pleasure or even retirement. That would be just fine with the locals.

“The residents embrace us,” Troud said. “It’s a mutual affection.”

• • •

SECOND TIME IS A CHARM: Danielle Kang doesn’t require much transition time. The Pepperdine freshman, who joined the roster a semester early after graduating from high school the first week of January, got her first win at the Bruin Wave Invitational March 3.

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Danielle Kang, who was in high school just a couple of months ago, talks about winning in only her second college event.

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After finishing T-17 in her first appearance with Pepperdine last week at the Arizona Wildcat Invitational, Kang, the medalist at the 2009 U.S. Women’s Amateur, said she wasn’t thinking about results entering this week’s event.

“I actually told myself, this tournament, just go and have fun,” she said.

Kang put together 16 birdies in three rounds at Robinson Ranch. She credits that success to the extra attention she’s been devoting of late to her game from 100 yards and in.

“I stuck a lot of wedge shots, my putting really worked for me,” Kang said. “I rolled in a lot more putts than usual.”

For anyone wondering if Kang can be expected to repeat this week’s dazzling performance, her play at a Pepperdine fundraiser Thursday offers a pretty positive outlook for the rest of the season. Kang threw out seven birdies and an eagle, and despite acknowledging that she’s playing well right now, notes that “there’s always room for improvement.”

• • •

FIVE QUESTIONS WITH... Tulane junior Janine Fellows, who got her first college victory March 2 at the Kinderlou Forest Challenge:

1. You never made higher than a bogey at Kinderlou Forest. How do you keep the big numbers off your card?

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Tulane junior Janine Fellows

If I do get in trouble, you get yourself out of it the best you can. You never want to get ahead of yourself and basically just stay in the moment and stay calm, believe in yourself and know that you can get out of the trouble that you’re in.

2. The Kinderlou Forest Challenge was your first college victory, how does it feel?

It feels good, all the hard work I’ve put in finally paid off so I’m excited about it and I love the feeling.

3. You won the Arizona Silver Belle Dec. 30. What did that do for your confidence?

It definitely built my confidence. It was a really good field, the feeling kind of carried on into this week. It just gives you more confidence, you believe in yourself and whenever you start going low you can stay there and you just don’t get ahead of yourself. It was a good experience, it definitely helped me with my win this week, showed me how to handle it.

4. You have some interesting nicknames (Slim, Stretch, Panini, Yanini, etc.). How did you get those, and which is your favorite?

Well, I got a lot of them. My actual name is Janina, instead of with an “e” on the end. I’m part Polish so that’s how I got it. They kind of make fun of me for that. I have J-Lo. My middle name is Louise so that’s where they got the J-Lo from. Stretch actually came from, there’s this guy that we played at one of the courses that works there and he was driving by one day and he just yells, “Hey Stretch!” so ever since then – because I’m tall and kind of skinny – that’s where they got Stretch from. It just stuck.

5. What do you think about living in New Orleans?

I think it’s a great town. Whenever I first got here, it was totally different than – I lived in Houston all my life – it was a totally different atmosphere. It’s a great town, the last few weeks have been amazing with the Saints’ win and with Mardi Gras going on. The city just erupted, I’ve never seen anything like it before. It’s an awesome experience to have an opportunity to live here through college, and all the golf courses are great around here and just the whole city is nothing like I’d ever experienced before.

• • •

A LOOK AHEAD...

What: Juli Inkster Spartan Invite

When: March 8-9

Where: Almaden Golf and Country Club, San Jose, Calif.

Why it’s important: California carries the highest Golfweek ranking (No. 12) in the 16-team field, but No. 25 UC Davis is riding a wave of momentum after winning the Fresno State Lexus Classic March 2 for their second win of the 2009-10 season. Look out for other top-50 teams Oklahoma State (22), UC Irvine (36), San Jose State (41) and San Francisco (42). The most exciting part of the tournament could be the individual race, however, as Oklahoma State sophomore Caroline Hedwall attempts to defend her perfect record this spring with a third consecutive individual title. A win here would make five career victories for Hedwall, the third-ranked player in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings.

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