LUMBERTON — Sitting on a couch inside the clubhouse at Pinecrest Country Club on Wednesday, Jeff Wishart sifted through entries for the 37th edition of the Robeson County Golf Championship.
The 56-year-old Lumberton native has organized the event for 15 years while also participating in the 54-hole grind of the championship division.
Capping his run as the organizer this weekend, Wishart will only have to worry about his own entry form next year.
“I love this tournament. It’s the only chance for golfers from around all courses to compete together,” he said. “But it’s time for a change.”
Despite the hassle of wearing two hats during the three-day event, which is sponsored by Dial Insurance and begins Friday, Wishart said his mindset changes once it’s time to compete.
“Once you tee off, you try to put it behind you,” he said. “It’s not as bad as you think, but you’re still keeping an eye on things to make sure it’s going well. It’ll be in good hands when I’m done.”
Still in search of his first county championship, Wishart’s talent on the course is unquestioned.
“Jeff probably would have won a county championship by now if he hadn’t spent the last 15 years trying to run it and play in it,” said Dwight Gane, the head professional at Pinecrest.
Gane praised Wishart for his work on and off the course over the years during the county’s crown jewel of golf.
“I just appreciate his efforts. It’s kind of been a one-man thing that he’s done and he’s taken the responsibility and run with it,” he said.
“In addition to getting drinks and taking care of lunch, he’s also kept a sponsor involved for this tournament — whether it was Lumberton Ford, Jerry Johnson Chevrolet or now in Dial Insurance. Finding that sponsor is a huge favor to those playing. It’s not easy to go ask people for money.”
Reflecting on his time as the tournament organizer, Wishart pointed to the event’s growth as a lasting memory.
“I’ve come in second a couple of times, but I’m proud of the fact that we’ve added the ladies and super seniors (divisions). I think that’s gotten more people involved. I’m proud of that and growing the future of the game.”
As for his chances to claim the county title this year, Wishart remains confident in his ability.
“I feel good but there are a lot of young players out there that are playing good right now,” he said. “I just want to go out there and have a good time. I’m sure we’ll have a good turnout.”
The tournament runs Friday, Saturday and Sunday and includes five divisions for men and women. In addition to the championship division, there will also be a senior division, super senior division, ladies Division and a regular division.
The championship division, and the super senior divisions will start Friday, with the super seniors completing play on Saturday. The senior, ladies and regular divisions will start Saturday and champions will be crowned Sunday. The field will be flighted after Saturday’s round.
As of Wednesday afternoon, roughly 80 people are set to compete in the annual event. Gane and Wishart expect that number to be closer to 100 golfers before play begins.
Thunderstorms are in the forecast for Saturday and Saturday, with temperatures expected to be in the mid-90s throughout the weekend.
Steve Pippin is defending champion of the championship division, claiming his first county title last season after a runner-up finish in 2015. Pippin was the only player to finish last season’s tournament under par, carding rounds of 73, 70 and 71 to earn a five-stroke victory at 2 under.
“It’s the same golf course, maybe an easier golf course because we’re missing 56 trees from (the damage done by Hurricane) Matthew,” Gane said. “There will still be some ground under repair because of Matthew. … I think par will once again be a pretty good standard.”
Mentioning Wishart, Kyle Covington, Dyrck Fanning and Scott Benton as the “usual suspects” to compete for the county crown, Gane is siding with Pippin as the favorite.
“It doesn’t seem like the players get as fired up as they used to. … They used to come out with their chest out and really prepare for this golf tournament. Now they’re a little more casual in their preparation,” he said.
“With that being said, I think Steve Pippin will be hard to beat again this year because he participates in a lot of tournaments. He’s probably more tournament tough than the rest of the golfers. I also expect Ryan Bass and Brad Locklear to do well because both of them have played a lot of golf.”
The top finishers will automatically qualify for the Highlander Cup vs. Cumberland County in October.
Rodd Baxley can be reached at 910-416-5182. Follow him on Twitter @RoddBaxley.