Smith happy to be back at college stomping ground

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July 11, 2007
By Dave Shedloski PGATOUR.com Senior Correspondent

UPPER ARLINGTON, Ohio -- A former champion on the PGA TOUR, Chris Smith is as eager as the next guy to regain his full exempt status, but he chose to forego this week's John Deere Classic even though he had a spot in the $4.1 million tournament. Smith opted to head to suburban Columbus for the Nationwide Tour's newest event.

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"I don't think too many guys would trade for a TOUR event, but I knew I wanted to play here," Smith, an Ohio State product, said Wednesday, standing outside the clubhouse at OSU's Scarlet Course, where the inaugural Children's Hospital Invitational begins Thursday. "I mean, this would probably be the only time I would skip a TOUR event, even though I am committed to the Nationwide Tour. It's obviously important, and to have a tournament on such a great course and one where I have so many great memories, it's really a no-brainer, and I think the guys out here are really going to enjoy this tournament and this golf course."

The Nationwide Children's Hospital Invitational, offering a $700,000 purse, is perhaps the most unique and appropriately placed tournament on the 17-year-old circuit. Nationwide, in its fifth year as the umbrella sponsor, is based in the state capitol and had been eager to eventually bring a tournament to its backyard.

All the pieces came together in quick order earlier this year.

This event is no less a success story than the recently completed AT&T National on the PGA TOUR, hosted by Tiger Woods, which also was organized in a short time. The Nationwide Children's Hospital Invitational has its own special identity as the only invitational on the Tour and boasting Columbus native Jack Nicklaus, host of the prestigious Memorial Tournament on the PGA TOUR, as its honorary chairman.

"When Nationwide signed on as an umbrella sponsor, they had talked about having an event here in Columbus, but the timing wasn't quite right," said Bill Calfee, president of the Nationwide Tour. "Of course, we have Jack's tournament here [the Memorial Tournament], the LPGA had been here for a few years. But when the women's tournament went away, there was an opportunity, and, fortunately, we were able to put something together here very quickly. We initially talked about 2008, but Nationwide had tremendous interest in doing it in '07, and here we are.

"Everyone really rallied around this from Nationwide and local sponsors and Ohio State and the community. And then getting Jack on board and backing us up was huge. That was instant credibility to what we were trying to accomplish here."

"The great thing, the real key, is that the partners in the foundation are very strong entities within Central Ohio," said Kip Erickson, executive director of the event. "You're talking about Nationwide Insurance and Ohio State; everyone knows the PGA TOUR product, Children's Hospital ... it's hard to line up a foundation like that for a golf tournament. It takes luck, timing and a real commitment to all make it work out perfectly for this event to get launched."

In a little over five months, the Nationwide Tour's only inaugural event of 2007 was put together, which Erickson points out could only be made possible by the aforementioned partners and the backing of corporate sponsors like Huntington Bank, Fidelity Investments and Safelite AutoGlass and ICON International, Inc., which is the presenting sponsor of four-round Golf Channel coverage.

Calfee pointed out that Nationwide Tour venues have been upgraded through the years, and this week's choice, OSU's Scarlet Course, is a prime example. The Scarlet Course, college home to Nicklaus, Tom Weiskopf, Joey Sindelar, John Cook and many other notable professionals on the men's and women's tours, has hosted myriad collegiate tournaments dating back to 1941. Last month, it served as one of two sectional qualifying sites for the U.S. Open.

The top-rated college layout in the country, OSU Scarlet underwent an extensive renovation by Nicklaus last year that increased the yardage to 7,455 yards. "It's a lot tougher, but I was relieved to see that the course had the same look and feel as always," Smith said. "It's going to be a great test."

Said Calfee, "I think we could host a PGA TOUR event on it tomorrow. It's that good."

This week's field of 144 players features nine of the top 10 money leaders, including No. 1 Paul Claxton, the tour's first $1 million player, and No. 2 Nick Flanagan, a two-time winner who has been sidelined for a month after hernia surgery. Smith is among 30 men who have played the OSU course via the Open qualifier or collegiate competition.

The 19th event on the 2007 schedule, the Children's Hospital Invitational also includes, in one of the tournament's charming additional touches, eight first-team All-American golfers, led by NCAA Division I individual champion Jamie Lovemark. A sophomore at the University of Southern California, Lovemark was a playoff runner-up last month to former TOUR winner Chris Riley in the Nationwide Tour's Rochester Area Charities Showdown at Somerby presented by Think. He also finished joint 45th in last week's AT&T National.

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