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Driving the Future of Junior Golf

Mario Conte counts Tiger Woods and Justin Timberlake as shareholders in his company. The 2006 Saint Leo graduate shares a passion for golf with the celebrities, which he has translated into a national-reaching business. 

Conte double majored in international tourism and hospitality management as well as business administration with a specialization in management. One year after graduating from the university, he founded and became executive director of the Hurricane Junior Golf Tour. 

“I did it pretty quickly,” Conte said of the business endeavor. “I started in the restaurant business after graduating from Saint Leo. But I decided I didn’t want to do that at all! I had a little money in the bank, so I went for it and never looked back.”

The Hurricane Junior Golf Tour (www.hjgt.org) hosts events for aspiring junior golfers who are looking to play on the collegiate level. Conte started HJGT in Tampa, FL, and lived in the same house as he did when he attended Saint Leo. “We started with 25 events in year one, and 12 years later, we are at 300 events in 28 states.”

Now based in Orlando, FL, Hurricane Junior Golf Tour serves youngsters who are serious about the game. “We start at [age] 10 and work up to 18,” Conte said. “Most are 14 to 18, and they are more serious about the next level and playing college golf. Of course, they all would like to play professionally, too.”

Florida also is home to most of the tour’s events as well as its biggest. “We can play year-round here,” Conte said of the Sunshine State.

That sunshine drew the Chicago native to attend Saint Leo. Conte played junior golf and in tournaments throughout the country. He enjoyed making trips to Florida for golf. “I had a family friend who was an alumnus of Saint Leo,” Conte said. “And I wanted to get to warmer weather, golf, and a life change. I always wanted to live in Florida.”

Conte met his best friend Mike Barbato ’06 at Saint Leo, where they became Kappa Theta fraternity brothers. With a degree in sport management, Barbato went on to work for sports teams and companies around the nation. Now, Conte has hired his fellow alumnus as the chief operating officer for Hurricane Junior Golf Tour.

Like Barbato, Conte has used his degrees to further his career. “I had some really great teachers and mentors at Saint Leo,” Conte said. “It was not only what I learned from a textbook, but I developed really great relationships, too. Stan McGahey [professor of international tourism] was instrumental in my wanting to travel. I took that degree and parlayed it with what I love, which is golf.”

Hard work also is a part of Conte’s DNA, and while he was at Saint Leo, he worked full time at Kafe Kokopelli in Dade City, FL. “It was owned then by the Greenfelders [Glen E. Greenfelder ’61, ’63, ’09 and trustee emeritus, and his wife, Gail],” Conte said. “They were a big part of my growth, and helped inspire me.”

As the executive director of HJGT, Conte does a little bit of everything. “You name it; I do it,” he said. “I started the business from the ground up. I do everything from helping manage the tournaments, the logistics, the sales and marketing, to our big relationships. Now, I’m looking forward and focusing on our two-year and five-year plans.” 

Among those big relationships is the one with NEXUS Luxury Collection, an international hospitality, real estate development, and asset management company, which boasts pro-golfer Woods and actor-musician Timberlake as lead partners. In 2017, Nexus became a shareholder in Hurricane Junior Golf Tour. 

“The success of junior golf is an important element in growing the game,” Woods said in a press release. “Helping boys and girls compete, and being involved in golf, will benefit the kids and help strengthen our sport.”

Growing the game is an integral part of Hurricane Junior Golf Tour. “That is a big initiative that we do on a daily basis,” Conte said. “Kids start off at local golf courses and then come to us. It’s our job to keep them engaged. We’re very forward thinking, and we use technology to keep them engaged.”

The biggest thing with Hurricane Junior Golf Tour is, “We want to be remembered as someone who changed the game,” Conte said. “We do things outside of the box. A lot of kids are uptight, and they get a lot of pressure from their parents. We want to make it fun. We want to make it a game again.” 

Mary McCoy is the senior editor and media relations manager for Saint Leo University in the Office of Brand Marketing and Communications and has worked at Saint Leo since October 2014. She earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism from Bowling Green State University (OH).

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