For 38 years, when either late July or early August arrives in Garden City and western Kansas, there has been one sure sporting event that takes place.
Born in 1980 under the watchful eyes of businessmen from Garden City, Dodge City and Liberal, the Southwest Kansas Pro-Am was founded, and for the first three years, the event rotated between the three largest communities in this part of the state.
In 1983, with Buffalo Dunes Golf Course and the then Southwind Country Club (now The Golf Club at Southwind) maturing into two of the premier courses in the Sunflower State, the Pro-Am founders determined to find a charitable organization and to call Garden City home.
And it has been that way since.
Wednesday’s evening corporate appreciation party kicked off the five days when 42 amateur teams of five players each (210 golfers) will participate on Friday and Saturday in conjunction with the professional field that committee officials hope will provide an equal number of pros for each amateur team.
First, Thursday’s opening day of golf will see teams compete in the Legacy Corporate Shootout, with a 1 p.m. shotgun start at Southwind, and will be capped off by the 6 p.m. Freddy’s Junior Clinic at Buffalo Dunes’ driving range.
Friday and Saturday’s format will have the 42 amateur teams paired with the pros, with both courses being utilized, and the teams switch courses over the 36-hole portion of amateur play. Tee times begin at 7:30 a.m. for the morning groups, followed by an afternoon wave of players. At 7:30 p.m. Friday, the LIFETEAM helicopter ball drop will take place at the No. 9 hole near the Southwind clubhouse, an event that raises additional money for the chief beneficiary of the Pro-Am, St. Catherine Hospital’s Newborn Intensive Care Unit.
Through its previous 37-year run, the longest running professional golf tournament in Kansas has raised more than $1 million for the NICU, the only Level 2 trauma unit for newborn babies between Wichita and Denver.
And that reminder of the principal cause for the Pro-Am was brought close to home when Katie Unger, mother to 6-year-old NICU graduate Charlie, spoke of her and her husband, Jay's experience in January of 2011.
“We had an experience that could have turned out to be our biggest nightmare, but it turned out to be our biggest blessing,” she said before a large crowd Wednesday night at the Clarion Inn. “The doctors were amazing, the nurses are angels on earth. We’re so thankful that we have a facility like the NICU, and this is a great cause. You never realize how important it is until you experience it first-hand.”
Long-time Pro-Am volunteer Kathy Koster, herself a mother to prematurely born baby, Chad, in 1970, long before there was a NICU at St. Catherine, was the latest inductee into the Pro-Am’s Hall of Fame.
Koster, who has been on the Pro-Am committee for more than 30 years, has solicited sponsorships through the years, overseen the registration of players and in recent years helped coordinate the helicopter ball drop as another means to raise crucial funds for the NICU.
She was introduced and presented with her Hall of Fame tray by Dr. Zeferino Arroyo, one of the principal surgeons at St. Catherine and a long-time family friend.
“She promotes Garden City anywhere she goes,” Arroyo said of Koster. “She’s a lady with great passion, and a passion for the Southwest Kansas Pro-Am. She’s worked tirelessly in many capacities for this event, asking for donations from sponsors, and for a good reason.”
Arroyo explained that the NICU allows St. Catherine staff, doctors and nurses, to take care of babies who are critically ill, like Charlie (Unger), to give them a good start in life. It’s a tremendous service she does and she’s very persuasive.”
In her brief remarks, Koster said she was especially honored, and after hearing Katie Unger, St. Catherine CEO Scott Taylor and Dr. Arroyo’s remarks, “I have no words to say, but I do have a passion for what they do for the kids.”
She reiterated an earlier story that while sitting at the final Pro-Am committee meeting two weeks prior, she heard her name mentioned in connection with the Hall of Fame, and was completely surprised by the announcement.
“I was shocked, and I said, ‘Oh my!’” she said. “There’s a reason I have a passion for this (NICU).”
She said that in 1970, pregnant with her son, Chad, she gave birth five weeks early. At the time, there was no NICU in Garden City, and no transportation service to Wichita or Denver hospitals to care for the premature birth of her son.
“Give or take, I was in the hospital five days, and Chad was in the hospital for two weeks,” she recalled. “It was very frightening. You have no clue what is going on with your child. It’s a special facility, and it has special people and we should all be grateful that we have something like that here.”
And in the crowd listening was Chad, and her husband, Duane, and other family members.
It was only the night before when the Koster’s were celebrating a family birthday that Chad heard the story from his mother about being a “preemie.”
“I’ve been playing in the Pro-Am since the early 90s, and it’s always been about the cause — the NICU,” Chad said. “But we had my daughter’s birthday last night (Tuesday) and Kathy was talking about a few things she was going to say, and that’s when she told the story about me being premature. I never knew until last night.”
That surprising revelation said that he understood even more now about his mother’s dedication to the NICU.
“I guess my first few years were pretty tough, but the good Lord has looked after us,” Chad said. “It does hit home a little bit more, but it doesn’t lessen the importance of the NICU. It’s something very important and she’s certainly gone about her volunteering with her passion.”
The evening’s activities closed with a combination of silent and live auction items that included memorabilia from professional athletes across a spectrum of sports, but also included memorabilia from the entertainment industry.
Through the years, eventual major golf champions have dotted the entry list of the Pro-Am, from Tom Weiskopf to Steve Jones, to Jim Furyk, Stewart Cink and Lee Janzen. Hutchinson’s Bruce Vaughan, a four-time winner of the Pro-Am, won the 2008 Senior British Open. Gary Woodland, now one of the rising names of the PGA Tour, won his first professional tournament here in 2008.
The Pro-Am will conclude Sunday with the final round for the professional field at The Golf Club at Southwind, with first tee times scheduled for 9 a.m. The professional purse will be determined by the entry fees plus an added $25,000.