While the majority of the players will come from places with familiar-sounding names, when the field of 402 players tees off today to start the 34th annual Sunny King Charity Classic, there is no doubt Greg Heath will have traveled the farthest to get here.
At 4,949 miles and three modes of transportation — four, if you count the airport rail — Heath is coming all the way from Lanze, Italy, to team with Anniston’s Marc Jones in the Toyota 4Runner third flight.
“I really didn’t know for sure if I was going to get to come to this tournament or not,” Heath said Thursday. “Just like everyone else, we’re experiencing some budget cuts, so even though I’d put it in the budget a year out and I was hoping to get to come, there were still some stars that had to kind of align for me to get here.
“Magically, the dates appeared close enough to each other that I was able to do it.”
The Classic has been spiced with an international flavor in the past as several players from the Jacksonville State golf team participated, but they already had been in the country.
Actually, saying Heath is coming all the way from Italy, while accurate, is a bit misleading.
He is an Anniston native who moved to the continent shortly after playing in last year’s Sunny King Classic for an IT job in support of the U.S. Army’s mission in Africa. He piggybacked the Classic with a meeting next week in Tampa.
“Marc came over to visit (in March) and that’s where the genesis of the story starts,” Heath said. “He was like, ‘if you come over, we’ll partner up.’ I said, ‘let’s see if I can do it.’”
After 22 hours on a bus, plane and car, Heath arrived at Anniston Country Club Thursday for his lone practice round in preparation for this weekend’s 54-hole marathon through the ACC, Cider Ridge Golf Club and Silver Lakes.
Heath made it, his golf clubs did not, lost somewhere in transit. Fortunately, he and Jones have a late tee time today, so in addition to getting some extra rest, there are hopes his equipment will arrive by the time he hits the first tee.
Until then, he’ll play with a set cobbled together from clubs belonging to his partner, ACC pro Kevin Daugherty and other friends.
You didn’t think a trip halfway across the globe would go without a hitch, did you?
“I dealt with it probably right there when I was talking to the lady at the baggage claim,” Heath said, noting the clerk was from Dothan. “I’ll tell you this: I was born and raised here, but in ’83 I went away and moved back in ’07. I lived in Hawaii 18 of those years (in the Air Force), so I’ve traveled here a lot.
“This is the eighth time since I’ve been coming home that one or more of my bags have gotten lost or misplaced in transit. At least half of them involved my golf bag. I hope they’ll bring them tonight.”
Heath will be Jones’ fourth Sunny King Classic partner since 2007. The list includes his younger brother Hugh, Kevin Brewton of Charlotte and Hugh’s best friend Larry Cooper, joining the partnership the year after Hugh’s passing.
“I’ve had more partners than I can count,” Jones said with a twinkle in his eye. “I’m working through them until I get good one. Maybe this will be the one.”
Heath has lovingly taken up the role of Jones’ little brother, but he isn’t sure how he’ll hold up as a partner. There’s no golf course on the base he’s stationed and the four civilian tracts closest to his location are all about 30 minutes away and cost about 70 euros (about $100) to walk.
“I’ve played in (the Classic) a couple times before, but I’ve never played well in the tournament before,” Heath said. “My cousin (Andy Jenkins) was my teammate the other two times and I really let him down bad. (Jones) has gotta give me one more chance, because I’m using the clubs as an excuse this year.”
This year’s tournament field is said to be the strongest in its history. There are 37 teams in the Ford Mustang championship flight with 28 players listing handicaps of 0 or 1.
Jeremy McGatha and Jaylon Ellison will be seeking a fifth Classic title as defending champions, but the new team of Marcus Harrell and Pine Hill pro Cory Etter were installed as pre-tournament favorites in a recent Anniston Star poll.
“There are just so many good players around this area, anybody can win it,” said Ott Chandler, a four-time winner who will be playing in the Classic with his son Dalton for the first time.
The field will compete in seven flights, with a best-ball format being played at ACC, a scramble at Silver Lakes and a modified scramble at Cider Ridge. The championship flight will begin play at Silver Lakes, which returns to the rotation after missing last year’s Classic due to damage sustained in the April tornado, and crown a champion at ACC on Sunday.
Social events follow the golf each day.
McGatha and Ellison set a modern-era tournament record last year with a score of 39-under-par. Their six-shot margin of victory over Brennan Clay and Dan Glidewell was the tournament’s largest since 2004 and the second-largest since 2000. Their final-round 60 tied for the second-lowest final-round score by a winner since 1989 when the scoring format was changed to make handicap strokes take a player only to par.
Many of the contenders believe the key will be getting off to a good start at Silver Lakes, getting some separation at Cider Ridge and successfully negotiating the fast greens at Anniston Country Club.
“I think it’s going to be one of the toughest years (to win),” Ellison said. “The team that makes good decisions and obviously gets hot with their putters is the team that’s going to be there on Sunday.”
“There are probably eight teams that very easily could go out and win this tournament,” Chandler said. “I think everybody will be about the same in the scramble; it’ll come down to whoever shoots 9-, 10- or 12-(under par) at the Country Club is going to win.”
As always, tournament officials once again hope to raise $100,000 for local charities.
“I think we’ll do that at least or be better,” tournament chairman Jimmy Flowers said.
“With a full field and most of our major sponsors back, my sense is we’ll be above that.
“It’s a very competitive field. I hope we get good weather, have a safe outing and everybody has a good time.”
Al Muskewitz covers golf for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.