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Justin A. Cohn

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Fans take advantage of bleachers along the 18th hole to watch the third round of the Hotel Fitness Championship.

Star power of Hotel Fitness tournament brings out fans

– Fort Wayne likes to call itself a great golf town.

Unfortunately, many times through the years, it has failed to live up to that billing.

Whether it was the old Hooters Tour event (actually in Kendallville), the many incarnations of the Mad Anthonys charity tournament or the national championships for the United States Golf Association and PGA America, I was left wondering whether the boast was inaccurate.

Sure, we have great courses and tons of people who play the game. But shouldn't there be the desire to leave our living rooms and watch great players if given the chance?

We hadn't been doing that.

The Rich Beem vs. Natalie Gulbis match at the 2006 Mad Anthonys tournament was luke-warmly received with about 3,000 fans. John Daly's appearances in 2010 and 2011 were similarly attended. The LPGA exhibition won by Belén Mozo in 2012 drew about 1,400 for the final round.

And the galleries at the Junior PGA Championship and U.S. Girls' Junior were populated by mostly friends and family of the players.

Finally, though, Fort Wayne has demonstrated its love for watching the game by showing up in droves to the Hotel Fitness Championship, which ran Thursday through Sunday and was won at 20 under by 2008 Masters champion Trevor Immelman.

Organizers have declined multiple requests for attendance numbers from the event, which was aired daily on the Golf Channel. I estimate about 19,000 people were at Jack Nicklaus-designed Sycamore Hills Golf Club – including about 10,000 for the final round – and the tournament will be back at least two more years.

"It absolutely ran like a dream," said Immelman, who pocked $180,000 of the $1 million purse. "I arrived here on Tuesday and said to my caddy, 'Man, this is some fantastic golf course.' I really enjoyed the fact that it played to your visuals and made you play draws and fades, and the greens were nice and small. It put a premium on hitting good iron shots."

Coming into the week, the course record was 64, shot by Robby Shelton at the 2012 Junior PGA. That score was matched or bettered nine times. There were 40 eagles, as players fired unabashedly for the pins. The biggest challenge for next year may be finding ways to better test the players.

That process is underway. Sycamore Hills has enlisted the Nicklaus Design Group to toughen up the course starting this fall. Organizers want to bring more hazards into play.

"And when the fairways are running this firm, we can just hit it forever," said Kevin Kisner, who tied for third at 18 under. "They can probably bring the fairways in a little bit, make it more narrow, and grow the rough up."

The Hotel Fitness Championship was fortunate to have well-known players, such as Scott McCarron and Chris DiMarco. The format, which includes players from the PGA and tours, should ensure that holds true in the future.

However, Fort Wayne can be fickle when it comes to spending money; $25 tickets at the gate and $4 soft drinks inside could be an issue once the novelty of the tournament wears off.

It'll take strong marketing to get the attendance to increase in the future. But they aced the first year and Fort Wayne finally showed it is a good golf town.

Justin A. Cohn is a writer for The Journal Gazette and has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1997. He can be reached by email; phone, 461-8429; or fax 461-8648.