While most birthdays or anniversaries that have reached the stately timeline of 40 years with some trepidation, the Southwest Kansas Pro-Am, Kansas’ longest continuously run men’s professional golf tournament, is celebrating its longevity.
This year’s Pro-Am will celebrate four decades of championship professional golf that was conceived in southwest Kansas in 1980 and has been a long-running standard of bringing future PGA Tour stars and major champions to this area of the state.
There will be a multitude of avenues for the Pro-Am to celebrate it’s 40th birthday, and that is the main portion of the tournament, 36 holes of amateur competition with teams comprised of five players while being paired with golf professionals for one or both days of the three-day, 54-hole professional tournament.
Garden City’s two shiny gem golf courses – The Golf Club at Southwind and Buffalo Dunes Golf Course – will once again provide the host facilities for the three-day extravaganza.
“We’re excited because we already have 40 teams registered to participate,” Paige Kraus, the Pro-Am’s director, said in mid-July, about three weeks prior to the tournament arriving in town. “We’re still working on securing our professional entries, but we are looking to fill out the list with both the younger professionals and then we are planning to have a Senior division (50 and over).”
Krause said the Senior Division was an idea in hopes of bringing back professionals who played in the tournament 20 to 30 or more years ago as a way of celebrating the tournament’s rich history.
Notable players who have played here and then gone on to win major championships at the highest levels of professional golf include Tom Weiskopf (1973 British Open, 1995 U.S. Sr. Open), Bob Tway (1986 PGA Championship), Jim Furyk (2003 U.S. Open), Steve Jones (1996 U.S. Open), Stewart Cink (2006 British Open), Lee Janzen (1993, 1998 U.S. Opens), Bruce Vaughan (2008 Sr. British Open), and most recently Kansas’ own Gary Woodland (Topeka), who captured the 2019 U.S. Open at historic Pebble Beach Golf Links, Calif. on Father’s Day in mid-June. Woodland won the 2008 Pro-Am, his first professional title.
In addition to Woodland capturing one of golf’s four majors this year, former Pro-Am runner-up Nathan Lashley (who lost to Woodland in 2008 in a playoff), won the Rocket Mortgage PGA Tour event in Detroit just a few weeks ago. Lashley also has a third and fourth--place finish here.
As has been the case throughout its four decades, the Pro-Am’s primary purpose for existence is to raise money for the St. Catherine Hospital Newborn Intensive Care Unit in Garden City. More than $1 million has been donated, allowing the hospital to purchase needed equipment that helps newborn babies survive and thrive in the early weeks and months after birth.
It’s the only unit of its kind between Wichita and Denver, thus allowing families to remain home or nearby rather than making the long trek to the major hospitals in those cities.
In 2018, the Pro-Am had one of its most successful fund-raising events, donating $90,000 to the NICU, one of the biggest single year contributions in its history. This year, Kraus said the goal is to raise $100,000.
“We’re now donating 20 percent of the money to the Dr. Stephen Meyers (founder of the NICU) Endowment Fund which allows for continuing education of the NICU nurses and for respiratory therapists who care for the newborns,” Kraus said.
Kraus said that funds this year will go toward purchasing a NicView Camera System, the next best thing to being there. This technology helps families feel more involved from the start as families are able to watch their newborn’s routines in the NICU, making for an easier transition to life at home.
For the regular division of professionals, the first place check is guaranteed at $20,000 with a goal of having a $50,000 purse. For the Senior Division, based upon total entries, Kraus said the goal is a $12,000 purse with $5,000 going to the winner. If there are more senior division players than planned for, the purse would increase, she said.
In its early lifetime, the Pro-Am drew upon a mixture of Kansas club professionals and young aspiring professionals from all over the country. It was timed in late July or early August to coincide with other big events in the central part of the United States – the Colorado Open, the Kansas Open, and stops in Iowa, Nebraska, and the Dakotas. Some of those events have gone by the wayside, but the Pro-Am continues to be successful in its own way, changing with the modern times where Mini-Tours are prevalent as opposed to stand-alone events.
“We think going forward to the 41st Pro-Am next year, that this is a launching point, to perhaps reset professional golf in Garden City and southwest Kansas,” Kraus said. “There are a lot of options and many opportunities for us going forward.”
The Adams Golf Pro Mini-Tour is one such group with which the Pro-Am affiliated itself nearly a decade ago for several years, insuring a quality field and numbers. In the past couple of years, the two groups discussed renewing the relationship but could not settle on a date that kept the traditional August date intact. The Adams Tour had expressed a desire to move it to June to better coincide with its season schedule.
“We will reach out to them again and see what it looks like to be part of the Adams Tour now,” Kraus said. “Obviously, we want to continue to bring quality golfers to the tournament as we have through the years. How does that look? We’ll just have to wait and see what the Committee wants to do in the future. While we have struggled in numbers of pros recently, we are still raising significant dollars for the NICU. Bottom line, our sponsors need to be happy with the way things are done, so we always want to keep that uppermost in our decision-making process.”
In recent years, several long-time participants have continued to return to Garden City, enjoying the competition on two outstanding courses as well as the hospitality offered by the Committee and in some cases host families.
Coloradoans Nick Mason and Derek Tolan (2017 champion, 2018 runner-up, are among those who have become fixtures in the professional field. In 2018, first-timer Dan Woltman fired three consecutive rounds of 67 for a 201 total, 13-under-par, a three-shot margin over Tolan, who was seeking to become just the second player in Pro-Am history to capture back-to-back titles. Fellow Coloradoan Steve Jones is the lone player to do so, having won in 1983 and 1984. Jones is one of the major champions who played here in its early years, having won the 1996 U.S. Open.
“I think we’re all excited about celebrating 40 years,” Kraus said. “We’ve got some special people returning for this year’s event.”
While the potential list is still growing, Kraus said that Randy Hunt, the first golf professional at Buffalo Dunes, will be in town for the celebratory dinner on Thursday, Aug. 8, at the Clarion Inn. Also returning is one of the founders of the Pro-Am, Larry Burkett, who was the Dodge City connection when the tournament was organized by golf aficionados from Garden, Dodge and Liberal. Burkett was affiliated with Coors of Southwest Kansas.
The remaining founders include deceased Paul Dart of Garden City, and Sam Cobb of Liberal while Ross Thornbrugh of Southwind Development now resides in Wichita. Kent Colvin of Liberal, whose family has owned Pizza Huts in numerous states for the past half century, continues to be involved as a major sponsor and a member on the organizing committee.
“On August 12, we’ll begin to start looking at the future,” Kraus said. “This year, we want the amateur teams and sponsors to enjoy the celebration we have planned. We hope to have the pros to play with them and I think we’ll get a strong response late as we usually do.”
Kraus indicated that following this year’s event there will likely be changes to the Committee as Colvin and his family recently sold their High Plains Pizza franchises and have been the major sponsor for the Pro-Am for many years. Also, another long-time Committee member, Kathy Koster, may be stepping aside as well, Kraus said.
“We’re looking at a changing of the guard, but I think it’s a healthy progression moving ahead,” Kraus said. “We want to fill those spots with the right people, because they have big shoes to fill. I can’t begin to express our appreciation to the people who have been involved all these years. It’s truly an amazing thing they’ve given so much back to the community.”
Kraus said she expects the community and golfers to step up in the future, securing the future of St. Catherine’s NICU with the Pro-Am.
“We don’t know what the Pro-Am will look like going forward, but we know how important it has been to the community,” Kraus said. “It’s been a cornerstone event for the history of this community.”
Kraus, an admitted non-golfer, has been a driving force in the increased sponsor donations in her first two years and into her now third year at the event’s helm.
“I’ve known about the event since I moved here and I’m humbled to be a small part in the last couple of years,” she said. “There’s a lot of hard work and many hours put in by people behind the scenes to make this work.
“The NICU is an important story and we want to share it with as many people as possible. The Pro-Am is more than just a golf tournament.”
A new component of the Pro-Am will be the Southwest Kansas Junior Golf Tournament, a one-day 18-hole tournament to be played on Aug. 6 at Buffalo Dunes Golf Course. The entry fee is $30 and there will be two age divisions for both boys and girls (Ages 7-12 will play 9 holes and ages 13-18 will compete over 18 holes). Juniors can register by calling 620-276-1210 at Buffalo Dunes pro shop.
Fathers Richard and Robert Gielow, twin brothers who were fixtures in the Pro-Am for many years, will return and conduct Catholic Mass on Sunday, Aug. 11, at 8:30 a.m. at The Golf Club at Southwind, just prior to the final round of the professional division.
Thursday, Aug. 8, the Hometown Chevy Corporate Shootout will tee off at Noon at Southwind. Players can also register that day for the main tournament.
At 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 8, Samy’s Corporate Appreciation Party will be held at the Clarion Inn. Part of the evening’s activities will be to celebrate the history of the Pro-Am as well as the latest induction ceremony into the Pro-Am Hall of Fame. This year’s honorees include four-time champion Bruce Vaughan of Hutchinson; and the Gillen family of Dale, the late Delores and Deann, who have been long-time volunteers and host family for players.
On Friday, there will be the TP&L Longest Drive Contest at Southwind along with the LifeSave Helicopter Ball Drop, a fund-raising event for the tournament. A dinner and dance will follow, with music provided by The Big Daddy Band at Southwind.
Saturday, there will be a Freddy’s Junior Clinic at Buffalo Dunes, starting at 6 p.m.
Friday and Saturday’s amateur/professional events will tee off at 7:30 a.m. and noon. at each of the two golf courses. The professional field, based upon entries, will conclude the tournament on Sunday, Aug. 11, with the final round at Southwind.