Inside the 2010 Ponce de Leon Invitational

by Brian Dobak
August 16, 2010

On July 18th, I wrapped up the 8th Annual Ponce de Leon Invitational. The success of the 2010 Ponce de Leon Invitational was much less about my coordination than it was the competitors and their spirit, as well as the background of the event. When you have a tournament to run like The Ponce, it gives you a lot of room to be creative. If you devote the time and effort that a tournament like The Ponce deserves, the competitors, their spirit, and the background of the event should take care of the experience itself.

My primary goal was to make it an “event”, not just a tournament, so everything I did was a result of having that always in my mind. When trying to make an “event”, I think it starts with creating a story. Fashioning a story out of the resources I had was critical to giving the competitors the best tournament services and golf experience possible. They have a website with quite a bit of information to draw upon like past Ponce results, historical records, history of the Ponce, a photo database of past Ponce’s, and a lot more. See

Of particular note, I felt compelled to raise the bar as high as I could and up the ante on the quality of the experience. The Ponce has a nice rota of venues like Orlando, Scottsdale, La Quinta, and Palm Beach Gardens. With that in mind, I wanted the competitors going home feeling like they never had an experience like that before. I also tried to make it difficult for future tournament coordinators of The Ponce to match the experience I provided. I've always believed that by raising the bar, it pushes others to try harder, so hopefully the 2011 Ponce will be that much better. But like I said, it wasn’t about me. I wanted to make the 2010 Ponce Chairman look good so my efforts also rooted from that. However, the environment, the atmosphere, the facilities, and especially the competitors are what made the 2010 Ponce what it was.

All the competitors came from different parts of the country, including San Francisco, CA, Houston, TX, Charleston, SC, Atlanta, GA, Charlottesville, VA, Richmond, VA, and Washington, D.C. I thought if I could somehow draw upon that fact, I could cultivate an underlying story within the event. Ironically, a few days before July 4th, I was working out at the local fitness center and the staff was handing out complimentary American flags. I took one but I didn’t think much of it. For a few weeks, the flag had been in the back of my SUV and wrapped in its plastic packaging. One day, after I had already learned that I was assigned to the Ponce de Leon Invitational, I opened the back gate to grab my golf clubs and I saw the flag again. The notion of using that flag in someway hit me like a lightening bolt and minutes later I already had an idea.

With the 2010 Ponce being its 8th annual, the tournament has a healthy history and by the looks of it, it’s going to continue for quite some time. After having gotten to know the competitors, I wouldn’t be surprised one bit if in 2033 The Ponce was being staged for the 30th time. With all of this said, I somehow wanted to capture its history even if it was in the smallest of ways. On their website, they have a link to photographs of past Ponces and I thought it would be a fitting idea to print a bunch of them out and make them a part of the scoring area. On the left and right sides of the scoreboard, I taped the pictures up so the players could reminisce those previous times and conjure memories of when or why that particular picture was taken.

A focal point I wanted to make for the event was the tournaments logo (as shown in the beginning of this article). I wanted to use it whenever and wherever possible, including the rules sheets and scoreboards. In an effort to individually personalize each player’s experience, I wrote a signed letter on my clubs letter-head with the Ponce logo on it as well. The letters were personalized for each player and each one was accompanied by a complimentary book by Dr. Bob Rotella on the subject of golf psychology. It was also fitting that, Dr. Rotella resides in Virginia and worked at the University of Virginia for twenty years as the schools Director of Sports Psychology. Many of the Ponce competitors are from Virginia, currently live in Virginia, or went to the University of Virginia together.

One of the signatures of The Ponce has become its opening ceremony. Historically, they have had special guest speakers and other special events accompany the ceremony. In 2008, the opening ceremony was kicked off by Reg Murphy, former president of the USGA. Also that year, Golf Digest covered The Ponce in a special publication known as “The Golf Digest Ambush” in which they seek and find the countries best “golf buddy groups”. That raised the bar for the opening ceremony extremely high, and I knew I probably wouldn’t be able to better that, let alone match it. But I did manage to get Gale Peterson, a Sea Island Learning Center Instructor and a “Top-50 Teacher” as voted by Golf Digest. She told some nice stories about Sea Islands history and dedicated a segment of her time to instruction tips on freeing yourself from the “man eating” bunkers found on the Seaside Course.

The other feature I wanted to emphasize in the story of the event was the trophy, in The Ponce’s case – The Fountain of Youth Cup. Generally speaking, I never understood why the trophy is often a relatively overlooked piece of a tournament. I think a trophy should be visible at all times. With the thought of making the trophy a focal point of the event, I thought it appropriate to prop the Champions trophy and the MVP trophy on a table with the American flag draped on it, on the first tee for each round, the scoreboard area after each round, and the Champions Dinner. Knowing it is the trophy’s that the competitors are largely playing for, I wanted them to see the trophy a lot and for them to have a reminder of what they are playing for. I wanted the trophy to “follow” the players as much as possible.

Also with that in mind, I always liked how during the telecasts of the major championships, the producers show pictures of the respective trophy in beautiful and scenic settings, sitting around some flowers, or propped up on a dune. With that in mind, I toted the Champions trophy around the grounds of my club for a half-hour and placed it in what I thought were appropriate settings to photograph the trophy in. Key thoughts when doing so were the fact that they were playing the Seaside Course all four rounds. Instead of flags, the Seaside Course has wicker baskets on their pins, so I wanted to make the wicker basket a part of the story line by propping the trophy on the ground next to a wicker basket. The Seaside Course is very much a links-style layout with dunes and small fences and inconspicuous flora, so I propped the trophy in a few areas that captured these features. Next was the thirteenth green of Seaside. It is one of the most photographed areas of the course with the Sidney Lanier Bridge in the distant background. So I propped the table I had been using with the American flag draped over it. I placed the trophy on the table next to the wicker basket pin, zooming in to capture a great shot of the bridge, the pin, and the trophy. Next was the Saint Simons Sound. It is a popular site to behold by members and guests, so I propped the trophy within some large rocks and photographed the trophy with the Sound in the background. Last but not least, The Lodge, I put the trophy on the lawn between the 10th tee and 10th fairway of the Plantation Course and shot it with The Lodge in the background. After all of this, I felt confident that I had a nice collection of pictures for the players.

Another key aspect of the event was the live, on-course scoring on Sunday’s final round, singles match play competition. I created a small scoreboard and attached it to the front of the golf carts windshield. I followed the four groups around for the entire round. The key to live, on-course scoring of this nature was two-fold. On the front nine, I stationed at the fourth tee and received match updates as they came through, after the last group came through, I jumped ahead of everyone and stationed at the seventh tee. After getting another round of updates, I jumped ahead to the tenth tee and got updates there. For the remainder of the back-nine, it was important to see the groups more frequently so I scouted suitable vantage points where I could easily and quickly cross over to different holes. When the first group approached the sixteenth hole, it was then a matter of working my way backwards, getting updates, and then jumping ahead, and working my way backwards. So by the time the last few groups approached 16, 17, and 18, they new exactly where they stood. Using this system, I think, gave the players an opportunity to know approximately what was going on at all times and by the last few holes, all sixteen players and myself were converged and watching the drama unfold.

Then came the summary book. The summary book was going to be the means to tie together the events of the weekend and actually tell the story on paper. The competitors will always have the memories, but I felt like the summary book would be the lasting, tangible piece of information that competitors could draw upon when reminiscing of the event. I had outlined how I wanted the book to present itself and what I wanted it to contain. I worked on it each day of the event, updating where necessary as the events unfolded. I essentially wanted to make the summary book world-class. I don’t know if I accomplished that; that is probably for others to judge, but I tried my best to give them something nice.

By tournaments end, I made some mistakes, but that is going to happen. All I could do was stick to the story line and let the drama unfold. I would not have been able to pull this event off without the help of others. Conference services, concierge, the butlers, my fellow golf professionals, the starters, outside services, the mens locker room staff, the F & B staff - we all ran The Ponce together. The moral of this entry is this: Any tournament you stage at your club, you can make it a Ponce. Think outside of the box, and go above and beyond. It will no doubt require extra effort on your part if you are responsible for running the tournament, but let me tell you something, it’s worth it.