July 12, 2014

GOLF | City men’s championship

The movers and shakers on the Columbia area golf scene – course owners and PGA professionals – gathered in1985 to wrestle with the future of the men’s city championship. Participation had waned, sponsorships had declined and some private clubs did not endorse the tournament enthusiastically.

The movers and shakers on the Columbia area golf scene – course owners and PGA professionals – gathered in 1985 to wrestle with the future of the men’s city championship. Participation had waned, sponsorships had declined and some private clubs did not endorse the tournament enthusiastically.

The question before the assembly: Did the event have a future? And if the answer were yes, who would take responsibility for its operation?

Course owner and pro Bobby Howard had overseen the most recent tournaments, but he wanted to relinquish the job. Silence mostly greeted his request for a replacement.

Then, Bobby Foster raised his hand and said he would step in with one stipulation.

“One year,” he says now. “I told them I would do it for one year.”

He found an ally in pro David Bennett, and they went to work.

One year became two, then three and four and on and on. That “one year” that began in 1985 and stretched to 28 is finally over. The 2014 Midlands Chevy Dealers City Golf Championship opens Thursday at the Members Club’s Woodcreek Course with a new hand on the throttle.

Allen Knight, a staffer with the South Carolina Golf Association who volunteered at recent city tourneys, becomes the director.

“I’ve been looking for him for 27 years,” Foster joked.

Knight will be an ideal fit. He brings a wealth of SCGA experience in operating tournaments, from entries to tee times to rules to the myriad of details to make a smooth operation.

Foster? Oh, he will still be around. He is “tournament chairman” this year and plans to compete in 2015. “In the Super-Senior Division,” he says.

But no matter whether he is an administrator or a competitor, the city tournament always will have a special place in his life – a life full of special achievements.

He has won golf tournaments, coached nationally ranked college teams, worked in college sports administration and developed a golf personality profile that is used world-wide.

He also operated his consulting business and found time to establish and participate in Fairway Outreach, an organization that provides lessons of life and opens the window of opportunity to disadvantaged youngsters. All the time, he led the city tournament and found time to conduct the Jim Byrd Memorial fund-raiser for three years.

He can tell a million behind-the-scenes stories from his days in the South Carolina athletics department and he can tell why Chi Chi Rodriguez and Barbara – not Jack – Nicklaus are his heroes in golf. The latter earn his admiration for their charity work, especially with youngsters. Along the way, he has played golf with Gerald Ford and Ted Williams and has ridden with Jack Nicklaus in looking at potential golf course sites for USC.

Foster took his Fairway Outreach program idea from Rodriguez and any profits from the city tournament have been earmarked for that organization. More than $237,000 has been raised and part of the money is used to send kids to camps, including one in Florida that instruction came from perhaps golf’s biggest name.

“One of the instructors became ill, and the camp director called Barbara Nicklaus to see if one of their sons could fill in,” Foster says in recounting one of his favorite stories.

Instead, she sent the Golden Bear himself.

The ability to send kids to camp is a far cry from the tournament Foster inherited – “moribund” is the word one writer used. That changed quickly; Foster gets things done. He upgraded venues to some of the area’s exclusive clubs and, he says, “We’ve never had any problem getting a course for the tournament.” He held a pre-tournament dinner that featured a speaker named Gary McCord.

Now, he says, “We have no trouble getting a quality field.”

There’s a reason he volunteered at that 1985 meeting. The city tournament had a special place in his life.

“I saw Jimmy Pulliam win the first (city) tournament I saw in 1959, and he took lessons from (Hall of Fame pro) Melvin Hemphill (at Forest Lake),” Foster says. “I took lessons from Melvin Hemphill and Norman Flynn, too, and I thought, ‘If I could win the city tournament, that would be the coolest thing.’ That was my motivation when I won in 1963.”

The memories pile up, but two from the 28 city tournament he oversaw remain special. One involved current PGA Tour standout Dustin Johnson, the other Fairway Outreach participant Will Godfrey.

“Fairway Outreach got its start from city tournament profits,” Foster says, “and to see Will win in 2011 at Woodcreek was a dream come true. That last putt he made is one I will never forget.”

The other special moment came at Woodcreek, too. Foster gave the players a break in the final round, moving the tees up on the par-5 17th hole, a dogleg left, to eliminate much of the forced carry for the seniors. Steve Liebler, the former USC star and PGA Tour pro who had regained his amateur status and won the city title 11 times, was paired with Johnson.

“Steve turned his card in and asked about 17,” Foster says. “I told him I had moved them up for the seniors. He told me, ‘Well, Dustin didn’t need them. He hit drive, wedge. I have played a lot of golf with a lot of great players and I have never seen anyone hit it like that. We will see him on television.”

Foster reflects on his journey through life and “good people doing good things” is often a theme. He can tell about Zach Johnson, a Masters champion, turning down a hotel room and bunking with a caddie in order to save money for the Jim Byrd tournament. He can tell about Ryder Cup captain and major tournament champion Tom Lehman sitting all day at a par-3 hole to visit with players in the Jim Byrd tournament. He can tell about Davis Love III. ...

How much volunteer time have Foster, Bennett and Tammy Hiller, Foster’s administrative assistant in his consulting business, devoted to the city tournament? “No idea,” he says. “Figuring it up would be scary.”

But the fruits have been bountiful, especially for the youngsters touched by Fairway Outreach.

Looking back, he notes that two PGA Tour winners – Johnson and Joe Inman – have won city championships. Maybe one of today’s young players will follow in their footsteps. But at least they will have a chance, thanks to Bobby Foster’s raising his hand all those years ago.

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