For my third installment of A Casual 9, I’m pleased to introduce the Founder and President of the Alberta Golf Tour, Leah Bathgate. Her tremendous efforts to start the Alberta Golf Tour from the ground up have made it possible for amateur golfers of any skill level to feel like a pro and have their own season-long tournament circuit. Leah’s energy and drive to make a positive impact on the game is contagious. Please enjoy.
1. Tell us a bit about your golf background and your motivation behind starting the Alberta Golf Tour.
LB: I grew up playing the Regent Park Par 3 in Regina with my dad and my brother. It had sand greens and everything! I didn’t play a “real” golf course until high school, after spending a lot of time on the driving range trying to copy my brother’s swing (who became a professional). A few years after high school, I moved to Calgary and started playing more. My brother kept his pro status, but has been out of the golf industry for 10 years now. I think when he quit, I wasn’t okay with golf not being in the family anymore, so my passion and love for the game grew deeper.
I began playing amateur tournaments in 2011 and had many ideas about how I could improve upon the idea. So, over the winter of 2012/2013, I decided to start my own, and now here we are. Over the past 4 seasons we’ve grown from 8 players to well over 200 players, and 3 tournaments to 25 days of tournaments, including three 2-day Majors, a 4-day Tour Championship, and a 2-day Team Match Play. I’m never content with staying the same, so there’s always improvements added each year after surveying the players to see what they think. I need to appeal to the majority of my participants, otherwise what is the point?
2. Are you able to play in many of the events or does running/organizing them take up most of your time?
LB: I love playing in the events when I get the chance, but I don’t play in them very often anymore. A big part of the reason is I started to realize how much these tournaments meant to people. Four AGT players have turned professional since I started the Tour. Many more still have the dream to do so. The tournaments are fulfilling the dream all of us crazy golfers have had of being on Tour and competing for something, feeling the pressure of being tied with your opponent on the 18th tee, or having your name announced on the first tee. It’s something special you don’t get to experience in a recreational round of golf, and I want to make sure it’s a consistent, positive experience for my players, every time.
3. It looks like there are some tremendous courses lined up on the 2017 schedule, including two of my favorites – Banff Springs Golf Club and Jasper Park Golf Club. In your experience so far, what makes a great venue for a golf tournament?
LB: The AGT has developed a reputation over the years of playing some of the best courses in Alberta (and eastern BC). I LOVE showcasing all the small town hidden gems. So, the first thing that makes a great venue is a great golf course. In my opinion, that means that the course is in great condition and the facility is excited to have us there. I have to say, our best events have happened when the GM’s and Superintendents become involved in the planning process because they are so excited to have the group out there. They strategically think about their pins and tee placements that day – it really sets the scene for what you see on TV with the Pro’s.
4. What are some other golf courses you’d like to have host an event which haven’t already hosted one?
LB: There are quite a few private courses we would love to be able to access for an event. A couple years ago, we started offering one private club event in Calgary and Edmonton. To be able to get into the more prestigious ones would be a huge honour, but we are waiting until we have full shotguns until we approach them to really make it worth their while.
5. The idea of playing tournament golf can make some players a little uneasy. What would you tell those people to put their mind at ease and encourage them to participate?
LB: I just encourage everyone to try it once. The thing that makes the AGT so great is the people who play in it. You usually have the same people playing the same flight so you kind of become your own golf family. Especially the higher handicap flights – you are all learning the game, learning the rules, and improving your swings at the same time. There is nothing to be intimidated about because everyone you are playing with is in the same boat as you are. Some days you shoot 85, some days you shoot 125 (trust me – I would know). But, at the end of the day when we all gather together inside after the round, that’s where the magic really happens and relationships are built.
6. From my understanding, tournament flights in AGT events are determined solely by handicap, but different tee boxes are used based on age/gender. I think this is a cool idea. How has this worked out so far?
LB: You brought up a touchy subject here! And I do understand from many perspectives why this is tricky. Let me explain how I choose tees. Courses have a rating and slope, and there is a men’s and ladies calculation from each tee. I do my absolute best when there is a female in a flight to match up the numbers on the men’s rating/slope to the female rating/slope, while keeping their skill level in mind. There has never been an instance where this works perfectly, so sometimes the men have an advantage, and sometimes the women have an advantage. It’s hard to consider breaking women or seniors out into their own categories at this point, because they are all at different skill levels and may have nobody else to compete against in their flight.
Example: Here’s the slope and rating listing from Priddis Greens – Raven Course. I love using this as an example because Priddis has used an initiative called Tee It Forward, encouraging people to play from shorter yardages, enjoy the game more, and keep better pace. They’ve created 9 different tees to play from (which is really just 5 tee boxes with combo tees for each, but makes it less confusing by having a dedicated colour for each one). If I had a male and female in the same flight, depending on their handicaps, I could easily justify putting the men off the Gold Tee (71.1/130), and the ladies off the White Tee (71.2/130) based on slope and rating. But, as you can see, even with the abundance of tees, there are no other exact matches.
This year, I’ll be using average club distances to choose the best tees I can for all players to have the best chance to fairly compete. Actually, Scott Atkinson (CEO from Play Golf Calgary) really got me to understand this idea when we worked together: Everybody should be hitting into the green with approximately the same club. For example, my 150 yard club is my 5 hybrid. Most men are hitting their 8 or 9 iron this distance, which would be closer to the 115-125 yard distance for me with those clubs. All of a sudden the woman hitting her drive 20-30 yards in front of the men’s drive is actually equalizing the hole in terms of playability because they both get to use the same clubs throughout the hole.
I get the odd complaint from men that the women’s drives ends up in front of theirs. It’s not a perfect concept, but it’s the best for me at this point. I think it’s neat watching them all compete against each other, because realistically, your handicap is your handicap so why can’t you compete against like-skilled players just because of your age/gender? I’ve had mostly positive feedback on this idea and will continue to finesse it as more ideas come to mind. It is better than the alternative of separating the females to not have anyone to compete against in their own Women’s Flights. I LOVE seeing more females coming out and I want them all to feel just as welcome as anyone else. We won’t grow the game if we segregate people, and at the end of the day, this Tour is all about having FUN!
7. I think my wife and I would make a pretty good mixed best-ball team. Does the AGT typically have any team events during the season?
LB: I’d certainly be a little terrified to play a Josh/Beth team. I’ve played a round with you guys – you’re both amazing golfers! Funny enough, since this is where we played our round together, we have teamed up with Dinosaur Trail Golf and Country Club in Drumheller to offer our first partner best ball tournament. We’ve had the request for years, but we were really focusing on perfecting our regular tournaments before moving on to different ideas. In 2015, we also started the President’s Cup, which was an invite-only year-end Team Match Play Tournament for the Top 24 Order of Merit finishers after the Tour Championship. This has been such a hit with the players who put in a lot of time and money in the regular season, and definitely one of the highlights of the entire season.
8. You’ve already got a great thing going, but what are some of your future goals/plans for the Alberta Golf Tour?
LB: First and foremost – we want to see full shotguns. This will hopefully allow us to expand our flights into age categories and perhaps gender categories if we can get more women out to play. The prizing would also increase since there is a $20/person prize pool within each flight. I’m sure with more players, we will continue seeing an increase in sponsorship as well, which will also increase prizing. We are never the same from year to year, and are always looking at ways we can improve what we offer.
Starting the AGT has sent me into entrepreneurial mode to think about other ways I can help use the presence of the AGT to grow the game. I have lots in mind – but nothing firm enough to talk about just yet.
9. I am a believer that playing a bit of competitive golf is great for improving your game. What other benefits do you think there are from playing competitive golf?
LB: You are absolutely correct in that. Learning and executing the rules and having fun while competing are very important. Competition does not have to be fierce and serious all the time (you’re actually allowed to have a couple adult beverages in these tournaments). I would also say the sense of accomplishment when you break through with a win, or improve your handicap are big benefits as well.
Perhaps the best thing about people playing in the AGT has been the friendships that have been cultivated and the camaraderie that comes along with that. We see people who met at our tournaments going on golf trips together now, or playing practice rounds together, or entering Provincial Championships together for support, and just enjoying each other’s company outside of the AGT. You’re meeting like-minded people with similar interests, isn’t that part of what life’s all about?
Thank you so much to Leah for taking the time out of her busy schedule to share her insights and give us a bit of an inside look at the Alberta Golf Tour. It sounds awesome and I definitely plan on getting out to some events myself.
To learn more and view the 2017 tournament schedule, visit the Alberta Golf Tour website. You can also connect with them on social media:
Previous Episodes of A Casual 9:
Episode 1: Roger Kingkade – the Calgary legend dishes on his recent exit from radio, his golf game, and how his new golf app business is helping both golf courses and golfers.
Episode 2: Lisa “Longball” Vlooswyk – the 7-time Canadian Women’s Long Drive Champion talks about her amazing story, competition, getting more women to play golf and, of course, how to hit it longer.