Whether it is a rowdy student section, an energetic supporter group, some noisy hecklers behind home plate, or thrilled patrons following their preferred golfer around the course, fans and spectators are a staple of any sporting event. Unfortunately, stadiums, arenas, and fields were much quieter for most of 2020 due to the global pandemic.
Not all fans were so easily deterred from attending events and making their presence known, though, as was the case at Great Waters Golf Course in October for the LPGA Drive On Champion- ship-Reynolds Lake Oconee.
When complications created by the COVID-19 travel restrictions and quarantine requirements led to the cancellation of the LPGA Tour’s 2020 fall Asian swing, the LPGA added a second installment of the Drive On series to help fill the void.
Held at Great Waters Golf Course at Reynolds Lake Oconee with 108 players competing on national television for the $1.3 million purse, the four-day event’s final round culminated on Oct. 25, exactly one year after course designer Jack Nicklaus reopened the links following an extensive year-long renovation project.
While the LPGA did enforce their “no spectators” rule by not allowing patrons to walk the grounds during the tournament, there was nothing stopping the countless residents within Great Waters who simply sat in their yards and cheered on the women, or the abundance of boaters who flocked to the coves along the back nine and honked their horns in celebration of good shots.
Numerous players noticed the way the lake community showed up to support them and were extremely appreciative, especially during a time where the simplest gestures of encouragement could go a long way.
“It’s fun to see this many people out on their boats and coming out of their houses to stake a chair on the out-of-bounds lines. I think I saw maybe a two-and-a-half-year- old out there waving, which reminded me a lot of my nephew,” three-time LPGA Tour winner Katherine Kirk explained. “It’s neat that there are young kids out here watching. Who knows, maybe we’re inspiring the next generation here in Georgia.”
“Since quarantine we haven’t had any fans, so it’s nice here, especially on the back nine by the water where a lot of people with boats are coming out and clapping for us. It’s always nice to feel like we’re playing in front of crowds,” said 15-time LPGA Tour champion Lydia Ko.
“It’s refreshing,” agreed 29-year-old Brittany Altomare. “It’s just so nice to see everybody back out supporting us. I mean, that’s what we like about tournament golf, playing in front of fans and feeling that support. This community has been amazing.”
One player in particular, Gerina Piller, was not entirely surprised by the outpouring of support, as she had experienced it when she participated in the Golf Channel’s Big Break Invitational at Great Waters Golf Course in 2014.
However, with COVID-19 disrupting life across the globe, her second Great Waters exper-ience meant even more to her. “I think the first thing that comes to mind is the hospitality. (The community) welcomed us with open arms (in 2014), and it was just awesome,” Piller recalled. “Now, (the fans) are finding a way to come out and watch us, and it’s really cool to know that we have that support from our fans, especially during this time. It can get a little lonely out there at times with no fans, so to have them come out and honk their boat horns for us or come out their back door and give us a little yell, it is pretty special.”
If there was any one player who received a little extra attention, it was certainly directed at four-year Tour player Ally McDonald Ewing, who held off five-time LPGA Tour winner Danielle Kang and rookie phenom Bianca Pagdanganan to claim her first ever LPGA Tour victory.
While her lifting of the Drive On Championship trophy led to a loud celebration from the boaters who had crowded into the cove near the 18th green, it was the singing that really got to the Mississippian.
After drying off the remnants of the champagne shower she received following her victory-clinching putt, Ewing addressed the crowd that had gathered to watch the trophy ceremony, which included her parents. Ewing thanked God, her family, her friends, her sponsors, and countless other individuals before noting that it was a pretty incredible way to spend her 28th birthday, which caused the entire cove to erupt in a slightly off- pitch version of “Happy Birthday,” bringing joyous tears to all of the McDonalds’ and Ewings' faces.
While most of the praise of the weekend was justifiably directed at the community members who came out to support the ladies and create a semi-normal atmosphere for the first time since COVID-19 disrupted events, numerous thanks were also given to Great Waters Golf Course and the LPGA for coming together to create an event on such short notice.
“It just means a lot. I feel that I’m already blessed by being able to play golf for a living, but especially in a time where a lot of jobs are no more, and people are struggling,” Piller explained. “I’m just grateful for the opportunity to play and have tournaments to play in, especially in places like this. It’s an amazing place and it motivates me to play even better in hopes that maybe one day I can own a second home here.”
As Nicklaus explained during his reopening press conference in 2019, “If someone comes to one of my golf courses, I want them to say, ‘Boy, that was really a fun golf course. I wonder what time I can get on here tomorrow.’ I want them to come back and enjoy what they have done. I want them to think there is more out there for them to see, so they want to play the course again.”
“The Golden Bear” must certainly have a smile on his face, as the ladies of the LPGA Drive On Championship-Reynolds Lake Oconee not only had a magnificent four-day experience navigating one of the premier golf courses in the area, but were also given an opportunity to witness first-hand the wonderful community that makes up Georgia’s Lake Country.
Will the LPGA return to Lake Oconee?
LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan, who owns a vacation home in Reynolds, recently told Lakelife that he hopes to make Reynolds a yearly destination for the LPGA. “We are continuing to pursue title sponsors that could bring the LPGA back to Reynolds for an annual stop on our Tour Schedule,” Whan explained. “Right now, we are really pursuing opportunities for 2022, given all the challenges created by the virus, but I’m confident we will find a partner that will make Reynolds a regular tour stop.”
In February, Whan was appointed heir to the U.S. Golf Association’s executive director and CEO position. Whan said he is excited about the change, but also looks forward to some great weekends at Reynolds Lake Oconee.
Story and all Photos by Trevor Bowden, published in Lakelife, March/April 2021