Written by Bryce McCuin
February 25, 2014
When Bryon and Laura Hotzler went to watch the University of Alabama golf team capture the NCAA Championship last spring, the players treated the Great Waters residents like they were part of the Crimson Tide family. That’s because for one week each season, the Hotzlers are their family – as in the team’s host family during the annual Linger Longer Invitational at Reynolds Lake Oconee.
And whatever the Hotzlers are feeding those guys – Bryon’s oven-roasted chicken wings are a favorite – it must be working. Alabama has won the past three Linger Longer Invitational team titles, while standout Cory Whitsett has captured the past three individual titles. Ranked No. 1 in the country and undefeated in four tournaments last fall, the Crimson Tide will be back to try for four in a row at Reynolds Lake Oconee, March 22-23.
“We’ll always have the tournament on our schedule, as long as they will keep having us,” Alabama coach Jay Seawell said. “Bryon and Laura have adopted us. We love them, the way they open their house to us and are so good to us. All our guys want to go back to Reynolds Lake Oconee because of them. Plus it’s a great test of golf and a great field.”
Many of the best young players in the game compete in the Linger Longer Invitational each year. Before they became hot young stars on the PGA Tour, Rickie Fowler and Chris Kirk were just college kids who came to Reynolds Lake Oconee to play in the tournament. So were Harris English and Russell Henley; Kyle Stanley and Jonas Blixt; Peter Uihlein and Bud Cauley.
At the time, most were names only golf insiders recognized. Now they are part of the young but impressive legacy of the Linger Longer Invitational, whose alumni have combined to earn more than $45 million on the PGA Tour. Kirk, the Georgia Bulldog who won at Reynolds Lake Oconee in 2007, and English, another former Bulldog, are two-time Tour winners, as is Blixt, who migrated from Sweden to Florida State. Stanley (Clemson) and Henley (Georgia) have each won once, while Uihlein (Oklahoma State) became a winner on the European Tour.
“It is remarkable to see the names that have come through to play in the event,” said Jay Moseley, coach of Kennesaw State, the co-host along with Mercer University.
The most popular player on the list of Linger Longer Invitational alumni is Fowler (Oklahoma State), whose commercial success earns him a reported $2.5 million a year off the course. With one Tour win under his (often white) belt, Fowler has a colorful style and rock-star image that resonates with golf fans.
“I am sure the players like to put their name on a trophy that all those other people have won,” said Mercer coach Steve Bradley. “But I think it is just as important for the Reynolds Lake Oconee community to be proud of the players who have won there and played there and be able to say, ‘I watched him in college.’”
The Hotzlers, who live across the cove from the 16th green at Great Waters, are looking forward to watching several Alabama seniors they have known since their freshman year. “It has been great to get to know them,” Bryon Hotzler said, defining what host families experience. “We don’t have kids; they are our kids. We fuss over them. They are total gentlemen and a lot of fun. We enjoy it more than they do.”
That might be a stretch, since the week spent at Reynolds Lake Oconee is quite a contrast from the typical travel from event to event, staying in one hotel after another.
“Here we get to stay in a home all together, rather than being spread out in a hotel,” said Moseley, whose team made it all the way to the NCAA Championship finals last year. “This is more of a bonding and cultural experience. It breaks the monotony of normal travel.”
Off the golf course, the players can go boating or fishing on Lake Oconee, ride a wave runner, or find some other leisure activity.
“The competition is important to us … the challenge to play against the best,” Sewell said. “The guys realize we want to be the best we can be. But I encourage my guys to get them away from the grind, to get out there on the lake, get their mind off golf for a little while. Some like to fish, some just like to go out on a boat.”
If Lake Oconee doesn’t do the trick, home cooking will.
“Food is the way into the hearts and minds of college boys,” Bryon Hotzler said. “It’s fun to cook for them. And if their parents are here for the tournament, we have them all over to the house for dinner together. We have been able to meet some great people that way.”
Around the dinner table – at least at the Hostler house – golf isn’t a major topic. Neither Bryon nor Laura Hotzler play golf, or know much about it. “Other than, ‘How did you do today?” the conversation isn’t about golf,” Bryon said. “We talk about school, families, things like that.”
Occasionally they talk about careers outside of golf, since in reality most of the players in the Linger Longer Invitational will not become golf tour stars. Bradley said one of his former Mercer players was able to get a job interview through a relationship he made with a host family at Reynolds Lake Oconee.
“The combination of the people and the atmosphere is wonderful,” Seawell said. “The competition is great, but the place is so relaxing. It really does make you want to linger longer.”
This year the 9th Linger Longer Invitational again will feature some of the top teams and individuals in college golf. Heading into the spring season, Alabama was the top-ranked team, with Georgia No. 7 and Oklahoma No. 12. Clemson was No. 29 and Kennesaw State, which was second in the tournament last year, was No. 33. But rankings can be deceiving, since No. 39 Mercer won a fall event against a field that included six of the top 30 teams.
Individually, the depth of talent in the tournament shows up in how many of leading alumni finished: Blixt was never higher than 8th; English was 4th twice; Henley 5th at best; Uihlein never cracked the top 20.
When the Linger Longer Invitational was formed, it expanded on the success of a fall 2005 event called the Reynolds Lake Oconee Classic, which featured 10 teams – including Mercer, Southern Alabama and Southern Mississippi, which won the team title.
“We created something unique,” former Mercer coach Jason Payne said following the inaugural Linger Longer Invitational, “with the mentality of the tournament to take it easy, play some golf and just be together. That is very appealing.”
It certainly is appealing to the Alabama Crimson Tide … almost as much as Bryon Hostler’s chicken wings.
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