Started in 1970 by the Pensacola Sports Association, the organization which had produced the PGA Pensacola Open tour event for many years, the American Amateur Classic was the brain child of three PSA directors, Bill Barkley, Wilmer Mitchell and R.H. “Dickie” Merritt, Jr. Barkley was the golf pro at NAS Pensacola. Mitchell was a Pensacola lawyer and Merritt was the Falstaff beer distributor. All were low handicap golf nuts interested in promoting amateur golf and promoting Pensacola.
Mitchell broached the idea of a new approach: a grand tourney on four Pensacola courses with flights for a wide range of competency, scratch to 18 handicap. The national Falstaff Brewing Corporation would be the sponsor contributing major money in exchange for spots for its business guests, utilization of Falstaff beer and promo items and gifts and the title “The Falstaff Amateur Classic”. Competitors would be sought all over the U.S. and even foreign countries.
Barkley and Merritt enthusiastically embraced the ideas and the three men threw themselves into creating the event. Within two weeks they had obtained permission to use their courses from the Pensacola Country Club, Scenic Hills Country Club, Perdido Bay Country Club (now the Sportsman) and Santa Rosa Shores Country Club (now Tiger Point). They had the agreement of Falstaff s Board of Directors to put up $15,000 (huge money in 1970 for an amateur event) and take 40 spots in the tourney for its distributors, suppliers and other guests. The PSA Board had voted its hearty approval and support of the effort and Mitchell had been named General Chairman for an indefinite term (he served 20 years).
Within a month numerous enthusiastic committees were at work and within 90 days the first tournament took place with 232 players from 13 states participating. From the outset the tourney encompassed a fine 72 hole medal play competition for all levels of ability plus a terrific social schedule of gala parties — 5 nights in a row. Top notch entertainment and food were included in the package and the fun side of the event was as memorable as the serious golf.
The tournament also pampered amateurs in ways usually enjoyed only by PGA pros. Courtesy cars, friendly hostesses at the parties and “Golden Girls” serving beverages on the courses. Door prizes, favors, well stocked gift bags, complimentary beer and Coca Cola products were available on course and off A hospitality room and gift shop was conveniently located. For a number of years Bell Helicopter Co. provided helicopters to speed players to their tee times at the four courses.
“We treated the players like Kings and they loved it. And they came back and brought their friends. It grew like topsy”, Mitchell said. Falstaff was so pleased the first year they gave the PSA a $10,000 bonus raising their initial contribution to $25,000.
In the years that followed the event grew to 400 and even 500 players using five courses and with a waiting list. Notable golfers competed — Ben Crenshaw, Jerry Pate, Bill Rogers, Allen Miller, Phil Hancock, Leonard Thompson, Andy Bean, Gary Koch, Bill Harvey to name a few. Celebrities also played — Dizzy Dean, Bear Bryant, James Gamer, Clint Eastwood, Arte Johnson, Tom Poston, Hal Linden and Roy Clark, among others.
Over the years Falstaff raised its contribution to $50,000 until the company was sold and had to discontinue its relationship. The PSA resolved to go forward with the tournament under the name “The American Amateur Classic”. Since 1970 several thousand golfers have competed. Mitchell remembers “One year we had players from 39 states and 5 foreign countries.” After Mitchell retired in 1990, MaU Langley Bell became General Chairman until his untimely death. Since 1998 Mitchell’s son Jack Williams has been the General Chairman assisted by PSA staff and numerous committee volunteers.
The AAC has raised more than $1,000,000 for charitable and non-profit purposes of the Pensacola Sports Association. The tournament continues today as a challenging event over four (or more) courses with a fun filled social calendar on Pensacola’s beautiful Golf Coast.