URBANA — Scott Szymoniak spoke in mid-May about Urbana Country Club preparing to host its first-ever American Junior Golf Association event, slated for the first week of August.
Still on as scheduled despite a recent statewide uptick in COVID-19 cases?
“Pretty much going on as planned,” said Szymoniak, the country club’s general manager.
Some of the best young golfers from 23 states, the District of Columbia and two other countries will tee it up over the course of three days — this upcoming Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday — as the AJGA makes its maiden voyage in Urbana. The only local player currently listed in either the boys’ or girls’ field is Wade Schacht, a Champaign Central sophomore and reigning News-Gazette All-Area boys’ golf first team pick.
An 18-hole tournament qualifier kicks off the action Sunday, followed by a players’ practice round Monday ahead of the 54-hole showcase during the ensuing three days. The main event will include 78 athletes after the qualifier is complete, and 71 currently are listed on the AJGA’s webpage for this tournament.
“To mitigate and to fit into the COVID restrictions they’ve limited all their field sizes to half, but we have a full field,” Szymoniak said. “We’re excited they got everybody in.”
The Visit Champaign County Junior-Am tournament, which was supposed to bring club members and other community types together with the young golfers as a fundraising effort, is the only previously-scheduled element that will not take place. Syzmoniak said safety and health concerns prompted the junior-am to be canceled.
“We just wanted to make sure that we’re still following all the COVID guidelines and everything,” he said, “and obviously we’re bringing in some kids from out of town.”
Szymoniak said nothing has changed with regard to the AJGA’s pandemic-related rules since he first spoke about the tournament in May, despite ever-changing guidelines handed down by Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the Illinois Department of Public Health.
Medical staff will be on hand to test each entrant before they begin play. No spectators will be permitted, Szymoniak said, save for one parent per player, coaches who wish to watch for recruiting purposes and tournament staff.
On the topic of tournament staff, Szymoniak said he hasn’t experienced trouble finding people to step up and help his new event function properly. In fact, he’s getting the opposite response.
“Actually they’ve been pretty eager to step up,” Szymoniak said. “The majority of them are members here at the club. They’re excited that we’re having this event. Definitely giving them something to look forward to. Right now, it’s really the only way to see these players up close, so it was really easy to get the volunteers we needed for the event.”
Some club members even are housing AJGA officials who are in town for the tournament.
Speaking of putting a roof over someone’s head, one significant hurdle for Szymoniak and AJGA officials to clear was ensuring protocol was in place for sheltering those on the course during inclement weather.
“That’s part of the reason why they cut the field size down,” Szymoniak said. “We’ve got our entire clubhouse. We’ve got rooms in our clubhouse that we can utilize the entire clubhouse and keep everyone socially distanced and inside if need be. That was one of the key things when we were having the initial talks. ... We’re ready for it if it happens.”
How this event operates could offer some semblance of a blueprint to local officials when planning future functions as well.
Jayne DeLuce, Visit Champaign County president and CEO, mentioned Urbana’s AJGA event when speaking about the viability of IHSA state tournaments being held in Champaign under both pandemic restrictions and 2020-21 high school sports guidelines put forth Wednesday by the IHSA.
“That’s been vetted, the safety guidelines, to be able to do that event and do it safely,” DeLuce said. “The golfers are arriving, and we anticipate a very successful tournament and hopefully the first of many years to come, to have that level of golf in our community.”
The timing of this tournament is interesting given another significant local golf event, the Twin City tournament scheduled for July 25-26, was canceled at the beginning of July because of COVID-19 concerns. Part of that showcase is held annually at Urbana Country Club.
Asked whether he feels the AJGA event is safer because the players all will be younger — in an age group statistically shown not to be as negatively affected by COVID-19 as much older age groups — Szymoniak instead said the AJGA’s presence and planning is why he’s comfortable with this tournament running largely as scheduled.
“The AJGA has spoken with the (Champaign-Urbana Public Health District) directly on this event, and we’ve ... gotten the CUPHD’s blessing to say, ‘This is great. You can go ahead and have this event,’” Szymoniak said. “The fact that our membership (is) coming out to want to volunteer for this event says a lot, too, just that they know it’s as safe as we can make it.”