Moot Thomas Invitational – Honoring a Legend

Hole #4, Ocala Golf Club (Photo courtesy of Ocala Golf Club)

Here comes more golf history.

When the 10th annual Moot Thomas Invitational is played March 3-5, 2017, at Ocala Golf Club, in Ocala, Fla., included in the field will be some of the most accomplished amateur golfers from around the country. They will assemble not only to honor the tournament’s namesake, Marion Moultrie “Moot” Thomas Jr., but to be part of the keen competition and singular atmosphere for which this event has become known.

“The Moot Thomas Invitational draws a national field,” said Ron Russo, founder and chairman of the Marion County Golf Association. “The golf course is challenging, requiring the use of every club in the bag.

“It’s gorgeous how it flows from tee to green, with varying elevations not typically seen in Florida.”

In 2007, Ocala, 90 miles northwest of Orlando in the Ocala National Forest, was named the official “Horse Capital of the World™” for its involvement in all things equestrian and its record of producing some of the finest champions in the sport.

Final Scores – 2017 Moot Thomas Invitational

Many say that Ocala should be named the amateur golf capital of the world.

“Ocala is rich with golf tradition,” said Jason Lenhart, PGA, general manager of Ocala Golf Club, site of the Moot Thomas Invitational since 2013. “Many golfers grew up here and have deep roots in the area.”

Ocala Golf Club is an affordable and welcoming municipal facility that offers annual memberships. Managed by Billy Casper Golf, it dates back to the early 20th century and is part of the Florida Historic Golf Trail. In 2009, the golf course reopened for play following an extensive renovation by golf course architect Michael Beebe “to restore the classical look” that had been lost through the years. The renovation consisted of new greens, tees, bunkers, irrigation, cart paths and selective tree removal. The club also reintroduced short grass around the greens to add interest to the short game. Another renovation, smaller in scope, was completed in 2015.

“The City of Ocala, recognizing the importance of the golf course to the community, is committed to keeping the facility great,” said Dan Zimmer, PGA, Southeast regional director of operations for Billy Casper Golf. “The city has invested resources over the years to preserving its quality, an important factor in why the tradition is maintained.

“You don’t see that a lot.”

A lighted practice range is popular with all the players at Ocala Golf Club, including the Moot Thomas Invitational competitors.

Ocala Golf Club is home of The First Tee of Greater Ocala.

Last year, players from 13 states competed in the Moot Thomas Invitational, one of three “majors” hosted by the Marion County Golf Association. This tournament and the depth of golf in Marion County are appreciated by amateurs throughout Florida and nationwide.

“We are very proud of Ocala golf – our tournament schedules and the quality of our fields,” said Berger Warner, a highly-decorated amateur who has won the Moot Thomas Invitational twice, in different age divisions, and has many other local and statewide victories to his credit. “Quite a few of our young players earn college golf scholarships, and some go on to play professionally.”

Warner cites PGA Tour winners Mike Sullivan – a native Ocalan – and Ted Potter, as well as Bo Williams, two-time champion of the U.S. Senior Amateur, as players with roots in Ocala who have risen to the highest levels of the game.

“We are widely known for horses,” said Warner. “But within the golf community, we are only known for golf.”

The Moot Thomas Invitational was started by John Jennings, “a good golfer and a big name in his own right,” Russo said. “It’s good to see how everyone rallies around the tournament’s namesake.”

Marion “Moot” Thomas, for whom golf was a lifelong pursuit, was born in 1930 in Ocala, where he lived all his life. Ocala Golf Club is where he learned the game and competed regularly.

A veteran of the Korean War, Thomas was the owner of Marion Concrete Company of Gainesville, retiring in 1989. Well known in men’s amateur golf in Florida and the Southeast, he won many amateur and senior amateur tournaments, including the North & South Senior Amateur, the Florida Super Senior Championship and the Florida Senior 4-Ball Championship (two times). He qualified twice for the U.S. Senior Amateur. In his early years, he played into the semifinals of the California Open and into the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open. As a senior golfer, Thomas shot his age countless times, including nine times in his final year of life.

Thomas, who died in 2007, is survived by his wife, also named Marion (Alderman Thomas), of Ocala. In 2009, Moot Thomas was inducted into the Florida State Golf Association Hall of Fame.

This will be the first year for a full field in the Senior Division of the Moot Thomas Invitational, according to Russo, with a waiting list. A total of 80 players will compete in all three Divisions.

Winners of the 2016 Moot Thomas Invitational were Doug Snoap (who also won in 2015), Apopka, Fla., Senior Division; Dick Clemmens, Tampa, Fla., Super Senior Division; and Jim Carley, Ormond Beach, Fla., Legends Division.

These days, Ocala, with its wealth of high-quality public and private golf courses, increasingly is referred to as the epicenter of competitive golf in Florida. The Moot Thomas Invitational is a reflection of this growing recognition.

Perhaps it is only a matter of time until the Ocala golf model is considered a national inspiration, although most Ocalans would say it can’t be replicated.

—Sally J. Sportsman