Brickyard's legacy lives on in its past champions

The Mercer Bears after winning the 2013 Brickyard Collegiate Championship in Macon, Ga., over a field that included Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech.

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1Patrick RodgersStanford  68.39 
2Robby SheltonAlabama  68.58 
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The best way Alfred Sams Jr., in his Southern drawl, can describe the Brickyard Collegiate legacy is by ticking off the names from inside the top 10 on the 2007 leaderboard, the inaugural tournament.

“Harris English, Brian Harman, Russell Henley,” Sams begins, with emphasis. “Cameron Tringale, Chesson Hadley, Kyle Stanley, Hudson Swafford.”

Those seven twentysomethings have since combined to win three PGA Tour events. Five were within the top 100 spots on the final 2013 PGA Tour money list. It helps Sams, co-owner of the Brickyard at Riverside in Macon, Ga., drive home a point about the beloved collegiate event in his backyard: It separated the champions.

After a seven-year run as one of the top tournaments in college golf, the Brickyard Collegiate will not return in 2014. Sams said that’s due to the loss of sponsors and volunteers.

“We reached the point that those who had been actively involved with the tournament these past seven years, they felt like they wanted to focus their efforts in other directions,” Sams said.

The Brickyard came together in 2007 as a joint project between the golf course and nearby Mercer University, under former head coach Jason Payne. Once both parties had agreed to start the tournament, it came together quickly – as Sams remembers, it only took a few months.

In the beginning, the Brickyard benefited from a golf-knowledgeable community and a strong volunteer base, which numbered between 130 and 160. Sams gives much of the credit to longtime tournament chairmen Cole Tidwell. Come tournament time, Sams, 64, said he did little but watch as some of the nation’s top teams played the course he and brother Kenneth had bought in 2003. Sams, who spent a year each on the Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech rosters, knew something special had been created.

“Today in sports, you sometimes don’t hear the positives, but in college golf, it’s amazing how appreciative these players were,” Sams said.

The Brickyard partnered with Macon-Middle Georgia Golf For Kids, and by the time the Brickyard books close for the last time, Sams said, the tournament will have raised more than $70,000 for that charity, which provides golf instruction and character-building programs to underserved children in the Macon area.

The Brickyard’s effect on college golf is more loosely defined through the memories of the coaches and players who came each year. Georgia head coach Chris Haack brought his team to the inaugural event – thanks, in part, to a strong Bulldogs fan base in Macon – and continued to support it. Macon native Henley, as a freshman in 2007, told Haack that he knew the course well and would like to play.

Georgia won the team title in 2007, ’08, ’10 and ’12. Henley won the event in 2009 and ’10, his junior and senior seasons.

“Once the first event concluded, it quickly became a Bulldog favorite because of the way we were treated by the entire tournament staff,” Haack said. “It was first-class all the way, and the vast amount of volunteers was something most tournaments dream about.”

Henley’s ability to draw a local crowd remains among Haack’s best memories of the Brickyard. Haack spent much of the final round in 2008 walking with Hudson Swafford, but when they reached No. 16 green, they heard a roar from the pines by No. 12 “that sounded like what you would hear around Amen Corner on Sunday afternoon at Augusta.”

Henley had just eagled.

“That roar made you realize that the tournament was something special in the making,” Haack said.

Perhaps it’s fitting – or maybe bittersweet – that Mercer won the Brickyard for the first time this fall. The Bears authored a heroic two-shot victory on Georgia Tech, then No. 8 in the nation.

Mercer head coach Steve Bradley called it the perfect ending, from the community’s standpoint. Bradley said he expects his program to continue to grow, even in the Brickyard’s absence. Still, the tournament and individuals like Sams are responsible for much of Mercer’s progress. The Bears ended the 2006-07 season ranked No. 164 by Golfweek. After four tournaments this fall, they’re No. 37.

“Our program is in a whole lot better place because of it,” Bradley said.

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