Michigan Golfer ON-LINE

SBC Futures Tour Innerform Golf Challenge Tees Off At Boulder Creek
By Don VanderVeen

Patti Butcher has seen the Futures of women's professional golf, and the outlook appeared so promising that she invested her time and money into the official developmental tour of the LPGA.

Butcher, who was recently ranked among the top 50 teaching professionals in the United States by Golf For Women magazine, put her Innerform Golf School's name on the line as the title sponsor of one of the newest events on the SBC Futures Tour, the $65,000 Innerform Golf Challenge.

The Futures Tour is currently in its second season as the official developmental tour of the LPGA -- and for good reason. LPGA stars Karrie Webb, Dottie Pepper, Meg Mallon, Rosie Jones, Michelle McGann and Laura Davies all have competed on the Futures circuit as they prepared for the next step. There are more than 60 players in the LPGA who have played on the Futures Tour. They have combined for 210 LPGA victories, including 21 major championships.

The Innerform Golf Challenge is scheduled for June 22-25 at Boulder Creek Golf Club in Grand Rapids. "It's a new sporting event in West Michigan and a new concept, and we're a new golf education company," Butcher said. "The timing is very good. It's a really great marriage for us."

Butcher's Innerform Golf and Saugatuck-based Hilltop Golf Centers are expanding from their Michigan roots to a national scale. The innovative teaching and practice facilities are cutting edge in areas of golf instruction. The link with the Futures Tour is a natural, according to Butcher.

"As a new golf education company, we really want to change the way people are introduced to the game," Butcher said. "We want to help golfers of all ages and abilities reach their potential.

"And really, the Futures Tour is all about golfers reaching their potential and their goals. For most of them, there goal is to someday play on the LPGA Tour."

Innerform also has invested additional dollars into a national Futures Tour player pool. After each quarter of the season, the Innerform Performance Series will award $1,000 to one player based on a point system from the previous five finishes.

The 2000 SBC Futures Tour is comprised of 21 tournaments, including two in Michigan -- the May 24-27 MedHealth Wellness Centers Futures Classic at Mystic Creek Golf Club in Miford -- and for the first time, the Innerform Golf Challenge. It joins West Michigan's other successful professional sports ventures, including the Senior PGA's Foremost Insurance Championship, minor league baseball's West Michigan Whitecaps and the International Hockey League's Grand Rapids Griffins.

"The sports market in West Michigan is predominantly male-oriented, and we were looking for a sports product that was female-based," said tournament director Ray McCahill, CEO of Athletic Advantage Inc. "When the Detroit Shock (of the WNBA) played in Grand Rapids, they were very well received and everyone knows the excitement that transpired with the U.S. women's soccer team in the World Cup.

"On the golf side, it was a process of elimination. We have a Senior PGA tournament here, the LPGA (Oldsmobile Classic) is in Lansing and we're not going to get a regular PGA Tour event. It was only natural that we pursue a Futures Tour event, and now we have a prime-season event with a nice purse. It's a nice complement to those other events and will expose more golfers in West Michigan to a very high caliber of women's golf."

Butcher competed on the Futures Tour for much of the 1988 and 1989 seasons, an era which spawned LPGA touring pros Tammy Green and Michelle Bell. Butcher will be the first to say that playing on the Futures Tour -- with purses the fraction of the size of the LPGA and constant travel -- is not for everyone.

"What the Futures Tour helped me learn is that I disliked the travel," Butcher said. "As much as I wanted to play and loved to compete, the travel was just too grueling."

Making a decent living on the Futures Tour can be difficult for those without sponsors. Grace Park of Phoenix, Ariz., was the leading money winner in 1999 with five victories and $50,592 in 10 events. Marilyn Lovander of St. Petersburg., Fla., was second with $33,345, including two first-place finishes in 14 events. It's not exactly an LPGA-like payday, but those earnings are in the Futures.

It took Audra Burks of Little Rock, Ark., 19 events to earn $28,439 and finish third on the money list. The big bonus for all three, however, was a one-year exemption for each to compete on the 2000 LPGA Tour.

"The exemption is a big carrot dangling out there in front of them," Butcher said. "Now, the Futures Tour rivals the European Tour in terms of quality of play, with the exception that the players on the European Tour have an opportunity to make the Solheim Cup team, which helps draw players from the LPGA."

Although it is just its second season as an official affiliate of the LPGA, this year marks the 20th anniversary of the Futures Tour. It was founded by Eloise Trainor in 1981 to give women not competing on the LPGA an opportunity to sharpen their competitive tournament skills. Total prize money for the 21 tournaments in 2000 is a record $1.1 million.

The Futures Tour alliance with the LPGA has made it much more attractive for golfers, and field sizes -- and purses -- have grown significantly over the past several years. The high level of competition has always been there, but now top players are coming from Europe, Japan and Korea trying to earn a shot at the LPGA.

"It used to be that if a player had one bad day at Q-school, it would keep them off the LPGA Tour for a year," McCahill said. "Now they can compete for a whole season with an opportunity to earn one of three exemptions, and it has become more of a trend for the better players from around the world to come here and play."

That doesn't mean that the Innerform Golf Challenge won't have its share of home cooking, either. Four players on the Futures Tour -- former LPGA touring pro Sue Ertl, Jennifer Mieras, Lauri Berles and Jessica Popiel -- all have their roots in West Michigan. In addition, Michigan State women's golf coach Stacy Slobodnik -- another West Michigan native and two-time Michigan Women's Amateur champion -- and Boulder Creek director of instruction Amy Summers have received sponsor's exemptions to compete in the event.

Ertl, an Ionia native and former LPGA touring pro, finished eighth on the 1999 Futures Tour money list ($25,636) in 16 events after returning from of a six-year layoff from competing. She played on the LPGA Tour from 1982-93.

"I missed competing, and the Futures tour is a wonderful opportunity to compete again," said Ertl, who has recorded eight career holes-in-one. "It was a real pleasure to jump back in where I left off.

"Boulder Creek is a good test, but a fair test, and those playing it will find the conditions outstanding," Butcher said. "It's an enjoyable golf course where they will have to hit all the shots in their bag.

For more tournament information call 616-534-9968.

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