When he was seven years old in 1962, Kent Colvin watched as his parents, Bill and Virginia, purchased the first Pizza Hut franchise in southwest Kansas in Liberal, and just the 18th in the world.
Having worked in the restaurant with his parents, and his brothers through the middle and high school years, Colvin returned later with a more active role.
In late 1979 and early 1980, Colvin and several other avid golfers from the three major communities in southwest Kansas – Liberal, Dodge City and Garden City — began discussions that would focus on bringing a men’s professional golf tournament to the area on an annual basis.
In addition to Colvin, just 24 years of age at the time, the group of golfers and businessmen included then Liberal Country Club head golf professional Sam Cobb, along with Dodge City’s Larry Burkett, who owned Coors of Southwest Kansas, and Garden Citians Paul Dart, owner of a number of Dart-In convenient stores, and Ross Thornbrugh, who was working for Southwind Development and the E.C. Brookover family, who had just opened Southwind Country Club earlier that year.
Buffalo Dunes Golf Course, which had opened as a public course in 1976, was just a few miles down Highway 83.
The objective of the group was to find a way to bring a high level of professional men’s golf to southwest Kansas on an annual basis.
Thus, was the beginning of what is now the Southwest Kansas Pro-Am, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year from Aug. 8 to 11. The Pro-Am has become a fixture in Garden City since 1983 after the first three events rotated between Liberal, Garden and Dodge.
It’s hard to imagine the Pro-Am without mentioning Colvin and his family. For each of the 40 years of the tournament, they have been a major sponsor, bringing to town 30 to 40 of their employees, family members and friends to participate in what is usually about three to five days of fun, golf, and reunions.
He’s been a driving force behind the Pro-Am as it has seen numerous changes through four decades as the Pro-Am has undergone an evolution as the independently-run professional golf tourneys began to disappear, bigger mini-tours became the norm with more scheduled events and more prize money.
“I think to be alive at 40 years is really quite remarkable,” Colvin said recently in a telephone interview. “There’s been many changes, and some of those are not always enjoyable. But to survive you have to see an event mature and it’s all about adapting.”
Colvin and his family will look to the future involvement with the Pro-Am in a much different way after this year’s event. Earlier this year, they completed the sale of High Plains Pizza to Grand Mere Restaurant Group, headquartered in Kansas City.
The sale, which took place earlier this year, includes 87 locations in Kansas, Oklahoma, Montana, Texas, Wyoming, Colorado and Utah. Kent and two of his brothers – Greg and Mike – were the owners in the family. Greg, who lives in Montana, handled construction areas for the company while another brother, Kevin, oversaw the marketing department for the business.
“We’ll be talking with the Committee and the hospital folks after this year’s tournament to see what our future involvement will be,” Colvin said. “I’m sure we’ll have some of our people who will still want to come, so I won’t be surprised that we will be a sponsor at some level going forward.”
In those early years of the Pro-Am, Colvin said it was integral to the success to find a charitable organization to donate proceeds from the event that would be for a good cause to southwest Kansas.
St. Catherine Hospital was just in the early stages of starting a Newborn Intensive Care Unit for newly-born or premature babies since there was no other facility like it between Wichita and Denver. The NICU today is still the only one of its kind in this part of the state and eastern Colorado, and has now been the beneficiary of more than $1 million from Pro-Am proceeds.
“There have been hundreds, if not thousands, of families who have benefitted from the NICU, so I am especially proud of what we’ve accomplished through the years,” Colvin said. “So many people, so many volunteers have made this all possible. It takes a lot of people behind the scenes to make the tournament go smoothly.”
Adapting to the changes in golf has also presented challenges to the Pro-Am Committee, Colvin said.
In the early years, the field was comprised of not only up-and-coming young professionals, but also club professionals who were looking for a quality golf tournament in which to compete, without having to drive or fly long distances. The Pro-Am, with its late July-early August dates, fit in nicely between the Colorado and Kansas Opens for a number of years.
As the mini-tours became more prevalent, and individual stand-along events fell by the wayside, the Pro-Am has continued to be successful. A three-year agreement with the Adams Golf Pro Tour turned the once 54-hole pro event into a 72-hole competition from 2010 to 2012. Now, the tournament has gone back to enlisting professional entries on its own.
“Some years, we had three amateurs, some years four, some years five, playing with the pros,” Colvin said. “Our time with Adams was a stepping stone in some ways, but the timing of dates didn’t work out. We liked our traditional late summer dates since most of the amateurs planned their participation well in advance.”
Colvin said that the original goal of bringing professional golf to southwest Kansas and finding a strong charitable cause has been accomplished over the four decades.
“I think we’ve done what we set out to do,” Colvin said. “We’re blessed to have two outstanding golf courses that the players constantly rave about, and the community embraces it and makes all the visitors welcome.”
This year, the number of pros will likely be fewer than Colvin and the Committee would like, yet he says there are still quality professionals who will come to compete.
“We have a number of regulars who still return because it’s their favorite tournament to play in,” Colvin said. “Knowing that we were selling the business, we arranged with the Board and the hospital to pre-pay our sponsorship early. The good news is that we’re contributing more dollars to the hospital than ever before and that’s because we have great sponsors who bring people who like this format.”
The first year of the Pro-Am was in 1980 and contested in Liberal at Willow Tree Golf Course and Liberal Country Club. Garden City’s two courses hosted in 1981 and Dodge City Country Club and Mariah Hills Golf Course were host sites in 1982.
“After that third year, the group just agreed that Garden City had the best overall facilities and with St. Catherine Hospital the beneficiary, it just made sense to make this the permanent location,” Colvin said. “Think about this – we had two infant golf courses, the hospital was struggling and there were just a number of public relations issues to deal with.
“To see where we are today is truly heartwarming,” Colvin said. “Garden is now a thriving community, the hospital is growing and we’ve raised significant amounts of money for the NICU. At the end of the day, the Pro-Am is all about the kids who are born and the NICU. That’s what has sustained people’s support.”
One of the primary Pro-Am sponsors since its inception has been Tatro Plumbing, locally owned and operated for many decades. Bob Kreutzer and Jim Johnson, original owners of the business when the tournament was founded, both have served on the Pro-Am Committee, each for about 20 years.
“When the Pro-Am was started, it was an important time in concept to bring three communities together and that has become a driving force here,” Kreutzer said recently. “I think everyone saw that Garden City was the best value for all the people and it’s a real tribute for those people who could dream and then see that a big professional tournament could be held in southwest Kansas.”
Kreutzer said he could recall the early discussions about where the charitable donation would be made and that St. Catherine became the natural place. It was then trying to figure out which part of the hospital would benefit.
“We knew that it couldn’t just be a general donation to the hospital itself, so the group had to find a specific department that would appeal to sponsors and that’s how we came up with the Newborn Unit,” Kreutzer said. “It was the only unit in western Kansas so that made it much more attractive to the Pro-Am.”
A few years ago, Kreutzer and Johnson sold their portions of the business to Kreutzer’s son, Rob, Justin Sanchez and Kelly Wright. Johnson, though, still sits on the Pro-Am Committee to represent the company. For the past decade, Tatro has been one of the four major sponsors.
“I think what has contributed to the success of the event is that we’ve been adaptable through the years,” Kreutzer said. “We’ve tried to keep the amateur competition as competitive as possible, but as time has moved on, more sponsors wanted to play with the people they were bringing with them. I think they’ve been accommodated well because certainly it’s more enjoyable for them to play with their customers and friends.”
Kreutzer credited Colvin for his dedicated years of service to the Pro-Am and for his foresight to bring the tournament to fruition and see it through the many challenges over the four decades.
“You don’t usually think of how many people, how many volunteers it takes to make the tournament run successfully,” Kreutzer said. “All the hours behind the scenes, the scoreboard folks, the people who spot balls, everyone. It’s been a fantastic event and been such a benefit to the community.
“Kent and others deserve a lot of credit for making this event sustainable over the years, and St. Catherine Hospital has donated a lot of its resources and people to make this successful. If everybody continues to do their share, this will remain a viable and successful event for the community.”
Colvin himself said there are many treasured memories, friendships too many to mention, that have resulted in being involved with the Pro-Am. He doesn’t see him and his family disappearing either.
“The Pizza Hut family we developed over the years has been an amazing journey for us,” Colvin said of he and his family. “The Pro-Am is like a bigger family reunion, so I would expect we’ll still be around come next year.”
Colvin had high praise for current tournament coordinator Paige Kraus, now in her third year of overseeing the event.
“She’s so well organized and has been a tremendous fund-raiser for the tournament,” Colvin said. “She’s made it easier for us (Committee). She’s really on top of things and doesn’t miss much in the details.”