By Ron Balicki, Golfweek
For more than 35 years it has been the showcase of the stars -- those currently within the collegiate ranks and those whose future takes them to the highest level in professional golf.
The event’s catch phrase is “Where Legends Get Started” and it truly lives up to that billing. No questions. No arguments. No debates.
It’s the Sun Bowl Western Refining All-America Golf Classic and believe me, it has produced many of golf’s legends.
Unlike the normal college tournament where the emphasis is on team competition, the All-America Golf Classic is a gathering of individual players. Not just any individuals. These are the cream of the crop in college golf for that particular year. And, as the tournament’s name implies, they are All-American quality performers.
One of the oldest college tournaments in the country, the 54-hole event will take place Nov. 18-20 at the par-71, El Paso (Texas) Country Club, its home since first played in 1974.
The tournament got started when PGA Professional Bill Eschenbrenner, then head pro at El Paso CC, and Sun Carnival vice-president Stu Hammond decided to put together an event that would not only be unique to college golf, but also one that would bring together the best collegiate players in the nation.
Now retired New Mexico State golf coach Herb Wimberly liked the idea and promoted it to the Golf Coaches Association of America, the players and anyone else he came in contact with.
In December of 1974, it became a reality.
The inaugural event featured 20 of the best All-American college players at the time and was won by Alabama’s Jerry Pate. The tournament has been held every year since then with the exception of 1987, when pending NCAA legislation resulted in the cancellation that year.
Over the years, it has grown into one of the most prestigious events in the college game. Basically, if you were/are anybody who is anybody, chances are you’ve made the trek to El Paso and played in the fall classic.
Players will remember and talk about their All-America Classic experiences for years to come. It’s that special.
When it began, the main purpose was to honor the nation’s best college players in head-to-head competition, and it now features a title sponsor in Western Refining, which came on board in 2002.
The tournament has blossomed into a stage for rising stars, the majority of whom have gone on to successful careers and become a part of the PGA Tour’s elite. According to the event’s website, the roster of past participants and champions have amassed more than 570 PGA Tour titles, including 44 major championships. There have been over 40 past participants who have competed in the Ryder Cup and the group as a whole has chalked up some $1.4 billion in earnings.
The list of names is extremely impressive and way to long to list in this space. But just to name drop a few: Davis Love III, Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods, David Duval, Justin Leonard, Paul Casey, Jim Furyk, Jay, Jerry and Bill Haas, Dustin Johnson, Tom Lehman, Lucas Glover . . . okay, you get the idea.
Matt Kuchar won the 1999 All-America Classic in a playoff with BYU’s Andy Miller and years later was quoted as saying about the event: “It was great. The best players in college golf all get together for a really fun event on a really fun golf course to play. I remember just hanging out with my good buddies from college golf -- some of the best players in college golf.”
Bob Kimble has been involved with the tournament for 15 years, the last 10 serving as tournament director. He says all those involved with the All-America Classic take pride in not only getting the best college players each year, but also in the success so many of them achieve down the road as pros.
“If you come to El Paso and compete, you’re playing in an elite group,” Kimble said. “The young men are obviously looking at a pro career and this is a good testing ground and springboard for where they’re going.
“Not only are the players attracted to the event because of its history and tradition, it also provides them an opportunity to tee it up with the best that college golf has to offer,” Kimble said. “It’s an honor for them to be an All-American and come to El Paso and compete. It’s something they remember for a lifetime.”
While the tournament competition produces some high intensity and some outstanding golf, there also are a number of social activities and some fun-filled side events. Not to mention each participant receiving a pair a western-style boots. After all, it is Texas.
Along with practice rounds, a banquet is held Saturday and Sunday night leading into the actual competition. There’s a college-am where players team and compete with those within the community, a long-drive contest, and a unique, Texas-themed putting competition, where instead of windmills and such, players face obstacles like hay balls, cow horns, saddles and boots. From start to end, it’s a laugh a minute.
Kimble said he and his cohorts get a big kick out of watching some of the players pick out their pair of cowboy boots, provided by Lucchese, an El Paso supplier. It’s one of the event’s perks that has been in place since the beginning.
“Quite a few of these guys have never had a pair of boots on in their life,” Kimble said. “It’s fun to watch them as they try to decide what they want. I mean, on the East Coast or West Coast, cowboy boots don’t necessarily fit into their lifestyle. But they sure have a good time trying to find a pair they feel is right for them.”
The field for this year’s Western Refining All-America Golf Classic will feature 23 players, headed by defending champion Cory Whitsett of Alabama, who defeated Missouri’s Jace Long and San Diego State Todd Baek in a three-hole, sudden death playoff after they finished with 7-under-par 206 scores in 2011.
There is a limit of two players per team for representation and Whitsett will be joined by Crimson Tide teammate Justin Thomas, last season’s freshman and player of the year.
California, which won all five of its starts this fall and is No. 1 in the Golfweek/Sagarin Rankings, also has two players in the field (Max Homa and Brandon Hagy) as does UCLA (Anton Arboleda and Pedro Figueiredo).
In addition, the field includes reigning U.S. Amateur champion Steven Fox of Chattanooga, 2012 NCAA medalist Thomas Pieters of Illinois, and 2012 NCAA Division II player of the year Ben Taylor of Nova Southeastern.
Fifteen of the 23 players are among the top 60 in the World Amateur Golf Rankings, including eight in the top 25.
“We take pride in having some of the best college players competing,” Kimble said. “Some years are better than others as far as strength of field due to a variety of reasons. But for us, the main thing is having every player when they leave El Paso they leave with a most memorable experience.”
Fun, camaraderie, keen competition and a top quality field of players year in and year out. That’s the Western Refining All-America Golf Classic -- “Where Legends Get Started.”
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