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Golf: Making the Turn – Louisiana Classics a unique opportunity for community, Cajuns golfers

Dan McDonald, The Advertiser, March 11, 2020

When something’s been around for 35 straight years, it must be doing something right.

Most of the college golf teams and coaches headed to Acadiana this weekend would agree, as one of the top collegiate events in the South returns to Oakbourne Country Club Sunday-Tuesday. UL’s Ragin’ Cajun squad and program will host its 35th annual Louisiana Classics Tournament.

The tournament is the only home appearance for the Cajuns each year, and UL coach Theo Sliman hopes that playing on familiar turf will help his squad continue the improvement it has shown from a disappointing fall season.

The Louisiana Classics has many times been the catalyst for that to happen. The Cajuns were third in back-to-back years in 2014 and 2015, with three of the four teams finishing ahead of them ranked in the top 15 nationally that year. UL finished fifth against another strong field in 2017 but dropped to 11th in each of the last two years.


“We’ve played pretty well at home over the last decade and I’m proud of that,” Sliman said. “We obviously weren’t happy with our play here the last couple of years, but so far this spring we’ve shown some fight. Every player in the lineup has improved their stroke averages by at least a stroke and a half from the fall, so we’re going to put the best five forward and I have a strong conviction that they’ll put up a good fight.”

Actually, UL will put up nine players in what will be the biggest field in recent Classics history. A total of 16 teams will take part along with as many as a dozen individual entries, and play will be in foursomes on both Monday and Tuesday instead of the traditional threesome format.

The Classics provides the UL program its one opportunity to play in front of most of its supporters, especially those who take an active role in the Classics. The most visible part of that participation comes at 8 a.m. Sunday in the annual College-Am where team hosts and other local amateurs pair up with the collegiate players in a tournament format.

Such events, which also serve as practice rounds for the collegians, have gone by the wayside at many college events. At the Louisiana Classics, not only has it remained a part of the schedule, but it has flourished, and Sliman said that’s in large part to the locals that get involved.

“It’s almost no longer in existence in college golf,” Sliman said, “and I think that’s a shame, so I’m proud that we’ve been able to keep that tradition going and keep it with the Classics. It’s an invaluable financial boost to our program, but it also brings an atmosphere that’s unique.

“A lot of the young men playing for their universities are going to wind up playing professionally at some level, and they’re going to be playing in pro-ams similar to what we do. It’s a chance for the coaches to teach their players how to interact with their amateur partners, how to have fun but still be professional and get your work done.

“When guys play in the College-Am, some of them build relationships that continue. Relationships are forged here that last forever … we have players who played in the tournament 25, 30 years ago that still stay in touch with their hosts.”

Many of the College-Am participants are members at Oakbourne, others are part of UL’s Vermilion Links support group, and the rest serve as hosts for the 15 visiting teams in the field. Sliman said the tournament couldn’t operate without all those entities, and that is especially true since the completion of UL’s golf offices and practice facility on the Oakbourne grounds three years ago that gave the program its first true “home.”

“We have a tremendous amount of support from the community,” Sliman said. “We hold all of that in very high regard and it means a heck of a lot to us. Teams want to come back and play and we’ve got a waiting list of teams that want to get in, and that’s a testament to those people, the Cajun culture, to (Oakbourne professional) Cliff Wagner and his staff, and the members of Oakbourne.”

Activities begin with Sunday’s College-Am, which includes breakfast prior to and lunch and dessert bar after play, and actual tournament competition begins with an 8 a.m. shotgun start Monday with two 18-hole rounds. The final 18 holes are Tuesday with tee times off the Nos. 1 and 10 tees beginning at 7:30 a.m. Action both days will be streamed live over www.ragincajuns.com including all play from Oakbourne’s iconic 9th hole and final-round coverage from the 18th hole.

It’s obviously a popular event with the participating teams, in part because of the weather, the attraction of the Acadiana area’s food and fun, and most importantly the job that the hosts do to entertain the players and coaches. Six teams in the field other than the host Cajuns have played in at least 13 previous Classics, and the only first-time participant is Michigan’s Wolverines.

That field includes a pair of top-30 programs in the most recent Golfstat national rankings. Louisville, which last played here in 2018 and finished fifth, is ranked 14th nationally, and perennial Classics participant and power-program Illinois is ranked 30th. The Fighting Illini enter the Classics on an impressive streak — in the last seven tournaments, Illinois has won four times and finished as runners-up twice, including last year when a surprising McNeese team won the title by seven strokes.

McNeese’s Blake Elliott, now plying his trade as a professional, shot five-under 211 to edge Illinois’ Bryan Baumgarten by one stroke for the individual title. He joins an impressive group of former Classics individual winners, one that includes reigning PGA champion Gary Woodland of Kansas, PGA Tour and former Chitimacha Louisiana Open winner Kelly Kraft of SMU, Andrew Loupe and Sam Burns of LSU and four others who have hit the winner’s circle on the PGA Tour in their careers.

The rest of the field includes three other top-100 teams in Sam Houston State, Michigan and Texas-San Antonio along with defending champ McNeese State, Rice, Louisiana Tech, UL Monroe, North Texas, New Mexico State, Texas State, Oral Roberts, Kansas City (formerly known as Missouri-Kansas City) and Southern Illinois.

The tournament is open to the public at no charge, and any individuals wishing to volunteer their time and help with the tournament as scorers or in other positions may contact Sliman at (337) 482-6130.

“Making the Turn” appears each Wednesday in the Daily Advertiser from March-November. Clubs, courses and individuals with information about local golf events may email Dan McDonald, editorial director at Golfballs.com, at danmcdonald@cox.net, FAX to (337) 857-8763 or call (337) 857-8754 and leave a message with phone number.