Course firms up for Smart

With 2011 champion Brian Belz not returning to defend his title and Pine Bluff Country Club succumbing to the intense heat wave that has affected the entire state, this year’s Bubba Smart Invitational is up for grabs for anyone solid enough to weather the conditions.

PBCC golf professional Reggie Grant said the course has suffered from recent drought conditions but is still very playable and should offer the field of around 60 a challenge unique to this year.

“The course is going to play shorter but faster,” Grant said. “It’s going to be difficult to read the greens and there will be some bare places where everything has been baked out.”

With Hot Springs’ Belz not returning due to age limitations, the door is open for others to contend for the title, named after Bubba Smart, who won back-to-back amateur titles in 1941-42.

Local talent looking to make a run in the two-day event include White Hall’s Michael Ingram, Micah Cottrell and Jase Wilson, who play regularly at PBCC. Also expected to fare well is 16-year-old Jeffrey Manning, a junior at White Hall High School.

The tournament is Thursday and Friday with an 8 a.m. shotgun start.

Manning has played in the event in the past, but is unsure of his ability to play this year due to lower back pain.

“I will make my decision before they make tee times,” Manning said. “I’m pretty sure I might be able to play. I went to the doctor and am just trying to keep any strain off my back. Hopefully it will ease up. Right now it’s not looking too good.”

Manning, who plays to a five handicap, said the tournament being at his home course should benefit him as well as others from the immediate area. He added that he would like to improve on his past performances.

“I play out here pretty much every day,” he said. “I’ve been playing out here pretty much all my life. I didn’t do so hot last year. I’m hoping to turn that around.”

Chas Nettleton and Austin Tate, both of Conway, are also expected to be atop the leaderboard in the boys 16-17 year old division.

The format is stroke play for both days with four age groups for boys (10-11, 12-13, 14-15 and 16-17) and one for girls (12-up).

Drew Castleberry is expected to be a frontrunner in the boys 14-15 division while Kaylee Benton is the one to beat after winning the title in the girls division last year.