It’s not unusual for a group of club members to get together, pool their funds and help an aspiring LPGA Tour player during the early days of her career. That has been happening for generations. And those unsung financial heroes deserve a shoutout.
But it is quite unusual for an entire club to pick an LPGA Tour player who has no natural connection to the membership or the area and say, “Yeah, we’re all going to sponsor you and make you our professional ambassador.”
That is exactly what happened last fall when Lauren Stephenson played in the pro-am at the CME Group Tour Championship with a guy named Eric Morgan, who is the co-owner of The Club at the Strand, a 27-hole facility in Naples, Florida that once hosted an LPGA Tour event. “She’s a great LPGA Tour player with a lot of talent, but her personality is just off the charts,” Morgan said. “As we were playing our 18 holes, I started thinking, our members would adore Lauren. Not only would they like someone to follow and root for, they would love her personality.”
Stephenson’s agent, Ayla Berrigan, just happened to be walking with her during that pro-am, so the deal was all but struck before the final putt fell.
“They have 27 holes and a big clubhouse, and they really support women’s golf,” Stephenson said with a smile and a shrug when asked about the relationship with the club. “They wanted someone that the entire club could rally around and support, so it was really cool. I did a clinic for them on (the) Tuesday (of Drive On Championship—Crown Colony week) and I’ll be going back the week after CME this year.”
Like many Florida courses, The Club at the Strand is in a real estate development with a fair amount of commercial build around it. It has 1,200 members, about 550 of which are full golf members and the rest who enjoy pickleball, tennis, swimming and the clubhouse. Membership skews a little older than the national average but right in the middle of the age range for clubs in Southwest Florida. However, unlike any club we can find in the country, the entire club is invested in a player who didn’t grow up anywhere nearby, has no relatives among the members, and didn’t go to school in the area.
Stephenson is from South Carolina. She went to the University of Alabama and her only trips to Naples have been for Tour events.
Having strangers root for you is one thing. Having them invest in your career, in mass, is something new. The Club at the Strand is contracted to sponsor Stephenson for three years.
“Sometimes it’s hard to get a membership donated as a professional golfer,” Stephenson said. “Girls who are starting out sometimes struggle to find a place to practice and play (when they aren’t on the road). So, to have the members at The Strand step up and support me financially is super amazing. I’m so grateful.”
“It’s a win-win, because Lauren has other sponsors, but we have 1,200 members with a 2,800-person reach,” Morgan said. “Last month alone we had 140,000 hits to our website with people searching for things about The Strand.
“It just made perfect sense for the club in terms of putting Lauren out there for our women’s clinic and for The Strand Cup (a club event). It was also a perfect opportunity to support Lauren and to give our members someone to root for.”
“We had some of our members travel to Boca (to the Gainbridge LPGA) to watch her,” said Elvis Gooden, the club’s general manager and chief operating officer. “It was perfect to have our clinic with her on the driving range the same week (at the Drive On), because everybody loved Lauren. (The clinic) showcased her personality. Afterward, everyone was talking about Lauren and if she came back, say, in two weeks, there would be triple the attendance, easily.”
“Yes, this is kind of a new thing for the members,” Morgan said. “And the buzz of having a touring LPGA pro that they can follow is really neat. They keep talking about it. It helps our membership be more involved.”
Then Morgan offered a broader and more aspirational perspective.
“To be more involved with the LPGA is important to me,” he said. “These women are incredibly talented and it’s a little sad that they don’t have some of the notoriety and attendance that you saw at the PGA Tour event in Phoenix. So, anything we can do to draw attention and notoriety to these talented athletes, we will do that.
“Can you imagine if you had multiple clubs doing this? Imagine the impact it would have, not just for the individual players but also for the tour.”