‘Masters of college golf’? Brickyard aims high

The 11th hole at The Brickyard at Riverside course

The 11th hole at The Brickyard at Riverside course

MACON, Ga. – As a man who makes bricks for a living, Alfred Sams Jr. knows the importance of a good foundation.

Ignore that base of support and, sooner or later, the structure will crumble.

That’s why, standing on the 18th green Oct. 11, the day after the fourth Brickyard Collegiate Championship, the owner of the Brickyard at Riverside course paused. Looking across the sweeping vista of central Georgia's rolling Piedmont, he had one question about his tournament:

“How do we make it better?’’ he asked.

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In most places, college golf suffers from a lack of identity. Even top-ranked teams might play in relative obscurity, with just a few friends and family on hand to watch.

Not here in Macon. Not during Brickyard Week.

The Brickyard Collegiate is a civic affair, with more than 200 volunteers catering to the players. There’s an electronic scoreboard off the 18th green, traveling magnetic team scoreboards and standard bearers for the leaders’ groups. Other touches such as drink stands every few holes for the players and hole-by-hole electronic scoring – with a volunteer at every hole – plus a leather-lunged starter announcing the players on the first tee put this nascent event on the top tier in the college game.

Yet for all of the amenities, the attraction here is the golf course.

Sams, with his brother, Kenneth, is a fourth-generation owner of Cherokee Brick & Tile Co. The red-brick clubhouse and masonry bridges and outbuildings throughout the golf course attest to the owners’ building materials of choice.

Alfred Sams, 61, bought a distressed private club seven years ago and hired Mark McCumber & Associates to create a championship course. Two years later, the rechristened Brickyard featured an extensive 7,128-yard rerouting amid the hills and native pines, notably a number of lowered fairways that exposed dramatic rock outcroppings.

photo

The Brickyard at Riverside course in Macon, Ga.

For all of the natural beauty and man-made sculpting here, Sams still envisions something grander. This unfailingly polite Southern gentleman, a Georgia Tech graduate who still breaks 80 from the tips, says this event can get better.

“We want the top teams as well as the top players in college golf,’’ he said.

You’ll sooner see an outhouse made of stucco on his property before he gives up on that dream.

Dozens of Macon-area companies have signed on to support The Brickyard, which is believed to be the only college tournament to adopt the PGA Tour model and benefit a charity. More than $30,000 has been awarded to Macon Golf for Kids, a local nonprofit that introduces underserved youth to golf, officials said.

“It’s amazing how much this community cares about college golf,’’ said third-year coach Andrew Tredway of host Mercer. His assistant coach, Ryan Blackburn, served as tournament coordinator and helped marshal “Alfred’s Army’’ – everybody from Macon schoolchildren to Mercer’s Greek organizations to local retirees – during the three-day, 54-hole event.

With so many orange-clad volunteers throughout the course, the uninformed might have thought that Clemson’s golf team traveled with a fan base to rival its football team’s.

“We wanted a color that would stand out,’’ said Sydney Sams, Alfred’s wife. “Plus, it’s Mercer’s color.’’

It helps that Mercer has been able to attract some of the best teams in the Southeast to such a young event. Georgia, with Macon native Russell Henley repeating as individual champion Oct. 10, won its third Brickyard title in four years. Augusta State triumphed here last year en route to the school’s first national championship.

Having those powerhouses, plus Georgia Tech, Clemson and Florida State, among others each year, helps set a standard.

Jason Payne, the assistant coach at Georgia, was Mercer’s head coach four years ago when he encouraged the Sams brothers to host a tournament.

“Alfred and his brother were looking to have an amateur event,’’ Payne said. “I said the best way to have a great amateur event is to get a college event. Russell Henley is the college player of the year, but people around here know the University of Georgia before they know Russell Henley.’’

To attract top teams for a first-year event, Payne relied on his contacts and a stroke of good fortune. Beginning with the 2007-08 season, teams needed a .500 record or better to qualify for postseason play. Hence, a mid-major such as Mercer suddenly had more appeal for schools from the big conferences looking for teams potentially to beat.

“It changed the way you scheduled, so we were able to have a really good event that first year,’’ Payne said. “It’s grown from there. People know that the event will be set up for the players because it’s Alfred’s course, and his opinion matters.’’

Pondering The Brickyard’s future, Sams pointed to another annual golf tournament in Georgia as a guidepost.

“You have to dream,’’ he said. “We’d like it to be the Masters of college golf.’’

Far-fetched? Perhaps. But just as those azaleas burst into their spring splendor every April in Augusta, you can count on October in Macon being resplendent in orange.

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