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Strauss: Senior PGA arrives as more than a golf thing

May 20, 2013 12:35 am    Joe Strauss jstrauss@post-dispatch.com

The Professional Golfers Association of America has spent recent weeks — months, actually — setting up shop at Bellerive in preparation for its Senior Championship that begins Thursday morning. This is a big deal.

Some may say this is a golf thing, a West County thing or a country club thing. And some of you would be very right and very wrong at the same time.

Certainly it’s a golf thing when the Senior PGA Championship represents one of the Champions Tour’s four majors. Along with prestige, the silver 36-pound Alfred S. Bourne Trophy and a possible hernia comes with the title.

Since directions take one west of I-270 into pastoral Town and Country just a bladed wedge from Creve Coeur, there’s no arguing geography.

And because Bellerive this week becomes only the third facility to host all four revolving men’s championships in American professional golf, the event indeed bestows further cache upon a place that already has seen Gary Player, Nick Price and Peter Jacobsen emerge as champion.

Those elements represent the event’s framework, perhaps even its pull to many. However, what returned major professional golf to the region has more to do with an ambitious initiative that has united those who run a private country club and the local PGA section with those who supervise schools and run youth programs within the city. It is an intersection where comfortable cliches fade and organizers believe something more lasting will rise.

In their December 2010 presentation at PGA of America headquarters in West Palm Beach, Fla., Bellerive and the Gateway PGA emphasized this week’s event would help crystallize an ambitious program intended to impact city youth through golf.

The program was christened PGA REACH (Recreating, Education, Awareness, Community and Health) and the concept has since become the blueprint for the PGA of America Foundation, which plans to use future championships as a means to create similar legacies in other cities.

The local PGA section could have stuck to hotel availability and corporate involvement during its presentation for the 2018 PGA Championship and, by extension, this week’s event. Such a strategy probably would have failed.

“I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by saying that REACH played a pivotal role in getting the PGA Championship and the Senior PGA Championship,” says Josh Riley, executive director of the Gateway PGA and one of the program’s authors. “I don’t think the tournament is here without it.”

Working with several community organizations and the St. Louis Public Schools, the Gateway PGA Foundation plans to make golf available as part of the high school physical education curriculum. A pilot program already is in place at Clyde C. Miller, where two classes have received short-game instruction. The section foundation is also offering summer internships at area courses, where as many as 19 students may be exposed to caddy programs, maintenance, landscaping and food service.

The program includes an educational component that requires students to sign a “contract” committing them to class work as well as golf. The larger purpose is to enhance graduation rates among city high schools.

This is no drive-by, feel-good program. It can’t be. Hosting the Senior PGA Championship is a derivative of Bellerive staging the centennial PGA Championship in 2018. The program’s progress, success or failure will be apparent long before the association returns. Since the PGA is taking REACH national, pressure to make it take root here is real.

“There’s commitment here to the Senior PGA and the PGA and there’s commitment to PGA REACH,” emphasized Jeffrey Kreafle, Bellerive County Club’s chief operating officer and general manager. “The support by membership has been outstanding.”

“On a scale of 1 to 10, I see this as a 10,” says Dr. Kelvin Adams, St. Louis superintendent of schools. “It’s wide open. No one is doing this for kids in an urban setting. We know it’s going to take some time, but it’s also very worthwhile.”

The PGA Gateway Foundation and Bellerive are heading fund raising for a program that is of no cost to schools. Partnerships with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Eastern Missouri, Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater St. Louis, and the faith-based Urban K-Life have assisted in the program’s reach.

Governor Jay Nixon is an advocate; so is St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay. Cardinals Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith has served as Gateway PGA Foundation president for the past two years. An avid, accomplished golfer who last month teamed with Vince Coleman to win a celebrity two-man event in Las Vegas, Smith is also the program’s most visible spokesman.

“What’s good about it is that no one’s trying to re-invent the wheel,” Smith says. “We’re coordinating with organizations who are familiar with the community. It’s ambitious. But this gives us a good chance.”

The program intends to take golf into an increasing number of city schools then build out. There is work on a $3 million capital campaign to construct and endow an urban golf facility that will include a nine-hole short course and a limited-flight driving range. Right now no city high school offers a golf program. That, too, should change.

“We don’t want this to be a flash in the pan,” says Riley. “There’s a commitment to these organizations. We realize they’re bringing on more staff and we don’t want them at any point to let folks go.”

“I don’t see this as ‘one and done’ for them,” Adams insists. “I think they have a great vision. What excites me is there is a real partnership with the PGA. It’s not something we’re pushing. It’s something they’re excited about doing.”

A pro-am sponsored by National Car Rental raised $90,000 last autumn. The Gateway Foundation expects to raise another $75,000 from a May 27 event backed by Express Scripts.

“The key to feasibility going forward is also making sure we are engaging host section and professionals in that market,” says Scott Kmiec, senior director of the PGA Foundation. “The Gateway section and Josh have been active from the start. We need host sections and cities and pros in markets hosting future events to buy in as well.”

That the Senior PGA Championship found its way to Ladue Road this week isn’t merely a golf thing, a West County thing or a Bellerive thing. It represents a cooperative between a regional organization, a well-heeled county entity and a city school system seeking to rebound from years of roiling controversy. Regardless of who dead lifts the Bourne Trophy late Sunday afternoon, one would think that makes this week a good thing.

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The story can be accessed here.