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LPGA's developmental tour coming this week to Montgomery County

The Symetra Tour will be at Raven's Claw Golf Club in Pottstown this week to conduct the Valley Forge Invitational, a three-day tournament with $100,000 in prize money.

Mike Nichols (left), CBO of the Symetra Tour, and Mike Bowman, head of the Valley Forge Tourism and Convention Board, have teamed up to host the inaugural Valley Forge Invitational in Pottstown this week.
Mike Nichols (left), CBO of the Symetra Tour, and Mike Bowman, head of the Valley Forge Tourism and Convention Board, have teamed up to host the inaugural Valley Forge Invitational in Pottstown this week.Read moreCourtesy

In his role as head of the Valley Forge Tourism and Convention Board, Mike Bowman wanted to find a way to call attention to the more than 50 golf courses dotted around Montgomery County and connect the marketing with filling the rooms of the area's hotels.

All the while, he sought a link between the new initiative, Montco Golf, and professional golf to help deliver the message, and thus began the relationship between the board and the Symetra Tour, the official developmental tour of the LPGA.

The effort will come to fruition this week when the inaugural Valley Forge Invitational, the sixth event on the 2018 Symetra Tour schedule, gets underway at Raven's Claw Golf Club in Pottstown. Following a Pro-Am outing on Wednesday, a field of 132 women will compete Thursday through Saturday for $100,000 in prize money.

Bowman, president and CEO of VFTCB, said the initial contact between his organization and the Symetra Tour came about two years ago at a sports convention in Sacramento, Calif.

"The cool thing was that they wanted to come to the Philadelphia region," he said. "That was really nice. They wanted to be here and we wanted them. When they came here and really saw the landscape, they were, like, 'How do we make this work?'

"The economics was getting partners involved. We put economic support into it and our hotels loved it. We had a lot of support. All the local businesses wanted to make this work. So all the stars aligned and it happened pretty quick – I would say 16 months. This is a great golf area, an amazing golf area. There's so much tradition and history here. We're getting ready and we're excited."

Mike Nichols, chief business officer for the Symetra Tour, said the board did an excellent job "in helping us put together the pieces for a successful event." One of the major factors was the golf course, Raven's Claw, an Ed Shearon design that opened in 2005 and winds around rolling terrain and wooded areas.

"What we're trying to do with the Symetra Tour is prepare the next generation of players for success on the LPGA Tour," Nichols said. "We are playing 21 times across the country and we want to make sure we're playing at golf courses that are the caliber and challenge that they're going to see when they get to the LPGA Tour. Raven's Claw opened their arms to us and we're excited to be going there."

The Symetra Tour, in its 38th year, has operated under various names. The circuit began to flourish after being bought by the LPGA in 2007, eight years after the association made it its official developmental tour. Symetra has the tour's naming rights through 2021.

"Six years ago, we had 15 events and we were playing for a little over $1.6 million," Nichols said. "This year we're playing 21 times for in excess of $3.1 million."

The tour's minimum purse this year is $100,000, but four events will provide $200,000 or more in prize money. According to the LPGA, more than 600 former Symetra players have earned LPGA membership. Perhaps the most notable graduate is LPGA Hall of Fame member Inbee Park, currently the world's No. 1-ranked player.

The Valley Forge Invitational is starting out operating under a one-year contract, but Bowman said the goal is to continue beyond this year.

"Our goal is to do everything right to really partner with them," he said, "and in the end say, 'OK, what did we learn? How do we bring it back? And if it's not this year, then next year.' But we would love to keep this going."

The tourism board is the event's presenting sponsor and teamed with the Pottstown Area Health and Wellness Foundation to underwrite the purse. At the end of the tournament, the foundation will present checks to three charities – the TriCounty Community Network, the YWCA Tri-County Area and the Foundation for Pottstown Education.

The field will have a Montgomery County flavor. Two players, Emily Gimpel, a professional from Lafayette Hill, and Hatfield amateur Isabella DiLisio, who just completed her junior year at Notre Dame, are competing on sponsor invitations. Both are graduates of Mount St. Joseph's Academy.

Another area contestant is Brittany Benvenuto of Langhorne, a Neshaminy High School graduate who has played in three LPGA events this season.

Jenny Haglund of Sweden, who moved up to No. 1 on the money list after winning the rain-shortened Symetra Classic Saturday in Davidson, N.C., has committed to the event.