REARDON: Golf Plus
It is purely coincidental but no less apropos that this year’s staging of the Senior PGA Championship presented by Kitchenaid comes on the twentieth anniversary of its most unusual finish, a finish with a St. Louis twist.
In 1993 Tom Wargo was a newly minted Senior PGA Tour professional dipping his toe in the water of big time tournament golf while hedging his bet by continuing to own and operate Greenview Golf Club, in Centralia, Illinois. For four tournament days at PGA National the golf public was both fascinated by his rise from obscurity and charmed by his back story.
Unlike the rest of the field that week, Wargo was a club professional by way of the blue-collar ranks, having worked the high steel in construction and automobile assembly lines in Detroit before turning to golf. Most his competitors in the field had spent years driving courtesy cars. Wargo during some of that time was ‘building’ courtesy cars.
When the 50-year-old rookie did the unlikely by topping PGA Tour veteran Bruce Crampton in sudden death for the win, it came as a surprise to everyone other than his fellow pros in the St. Louis Gateway section. Wargo had been grinding them down week after week for years..
At the same time that Wargo was shining the spotlight on his local section as a winner of a senior major, his same group of Gateway pros were in the middle of a long run earning accolades in a different way. Wargo, along with dozens of local professionals, was part of the section’s annual Clubs for Kids program.
Beyond the game itself golf has always had a strong reputation for charitable outreach. In 2013 the PGA Tour hopes its total historical contributions to charity will pass the $2 billion mark. But it may come as a surprise that professional golf’s four biggest revenue machines, the four majors, traditionally have not had the same designated charity relationships the men’s tours see week after week.
The Augusta National quietly announces charitable contributions well after the Masters has taken place. Both the USGA and the R&A rely on their Opens to fund their entire operations for the year. Recently the PGA of America has used the platform of their PGA Championship to trumpet affiliated causes they support throughout the year. But in the case of each event the outreach has been less defined.
With this year’s Senior PGA Championship at Bellerive Country Club new ground is being broken. When the PGA of America and the club began their dance to stage both the Senior PGA Championship in 2013 and the PGA Championship in 2018 in St. Louis, a new element was added to the discussion – charity. When the official announcement was made, it wasn’t just your usual fanfare for the Tour pros coming to town. On the stage with the tournament officials was the President of the Gateway PGA Foundation, another Hall of Famer, baseball’s Ozzie Smith. St. Louis was getting more than two weeks of professional golf in a five-year span. The press conference was the launch of PGA REACH, a program that partners the host club, the local section and the PGA of America in a way that’s intended to have a lasting impact in the community.
For two years that collaboration has been up and running, raising and applying funds as the Foundation works with youth groups and more recently the city schools. The aim is to improve and advance opportunities for St. Louis area youth to succeed in life, primarily by keeping “kids in school,” and time has allowed the program to sharpen its focus.
“In our conversations with Doctor Kelvin Adams (Superintendent of the St. Louis Public Schools) he told us so many of our kids live below the poverty level that when school is over they have nothing to do,” says Ed Glotzbach, Bellerive Treasurer and committee chair for the REACH program. “We are hoping to set up a permanent set of activities with an endowment to support them.” Among those plans is the hope to partner local clubs with city schools in starting and maintaining school golf teams, an extracurricular absent throughout the city.
For Smith, heading the Foundation is an opportunity to locally field the challenge facing urban communities around the nation and use a different kind of “”wizardry” to make a difference. The new PGA Reach partnership brings a new energy to that endeavor. “The Gateway PGA Outreach Program is about opening doors through the influence of golf in enhancing education, the economy and family health and wellness,” says Ozzie. “I could not be more excited for St. Louis in the days and years ahead.”
When Wargo won his major two decades ago, it was a life changing experience for the “blue collar” pro. This year’s Senior PGA Championship presented by Kitchenaid at Bellerive will change countless lives of youngsters throughout the area this year and beyond, thanks to PGA REACH and the Gateway PGA Foundation.