Local golfers vie for Albany Amateur titles as tournament tees off today

Photo by John Millikan

Photo by John Millikan

ALBANY -- Kids, golf and a tournament pitting the best in Southwest Georgia all mingle together in one succinct idea: The Albany Amateur Championship.

Simple enough, right?

It's Albany's best golf tournament, an annual event that embraces the links and the top golfers in the area while wrapping its arms around the very youth who are just teeing off.

This is a tournament that gives a new meaning to up-and-down because the kids coming up are what this two-day event is really all about.

These are kids who will benefit because of the work and promise of First Tee of Albany, a nonprofit organization with the goal of changing young lives through golf.

The mission statement is more than a cause, it's a way of life for First Tee, which lives on this message: "To improve the lives of young people by providing learning facilities and educational programs that promote character development and life-enhancing values through the game of golf.''

This weekend will be filled with dangerous bunkers, gut-wrenching lies and heartbreaking putts that will go hand-in-hand with some breathtaking shots and a few stand-on-your-head lucky bounces. But in the end the proceeds will benefit the kids at First Tee.

"It's a great tournament every year,'' said Burkett Carver, the executive director of First Tee who has seen the tournament grow in numbers and in stature over the years. They've tweaked the tournament this year, adding a division to the women's competition and going to a 36-hole tournament instead of 54-holes.

"Some people complained that it was a lot of golf and said they had to take a vacation day to play in the first round on Friday,'' Carver said. "So we're going to 36 holes and playing on Saturday and Sunday.''

The two-day tournament starts today at Stonebridge and ends Sunday at Doublegate, where winners in five divisions will be crowned, including a new Senior Division for women. After all, it really wasn't fair to have a men's senior division and not a women's.

"Some of the women asked if they could have a senior division, so we added one,'' Carver said.

Blame those darned kids. Kathryn Fowler, a sophomore at Ole Miss, has won the last two women's titles by 15 and 13 strokes. Fowler, who fired back-to-back rounds of 69 to win last year, is back for the three-peat. She tees off at 7:40 this morning along with former Sherwood star Kelly Pearce, who won the tournament in 2008 and was second a year ago, and Helen Kirbo, who won in 2004 and again in 2007.

Spencer Davis, who joked last year that he had a big enough lead after two rounds not to choke on the third day, is back to defend his men's title. He shot a three-day 220 to beat James Salter by four strokes and Deerfield-Windsor baseball coach Rod Murray by five.

Mike Cooper won the men's mid-am title, and Joe Dorner won the men's senior division to complete the first father-and-son title act in the six-year tournament. His son, Brent, won the men's title the first two years of the tournament.

Fowler said she loves this tournament because everyone is so encouraging, and even though it's competitive, the atmosphere couldn't be better on the course.

"It's different,'' she said. "Everyone is pulling for everyone to do well.''

It is a different kind of tournament -- so local that it all but defines The Good Life City, and yet intriguing and demanding.

"It's different (too) because it's not a scramble or team competition,'' Carver said. "It's different because it's championship golf, and USGA rules are enforced. It's true championship golf.

"That's why people like it,'' he added. "They like the tournament setting and the USGA rules. You've got many of the best golfers in our community and the most courteous and knowledgeable golfers in the community.''

For the second year in a row, U-Save-It Pharmacy, which sponsors its own high school basketball tournament during the Christmas holidays, is sponsoring the tournament -- just another local touch to a tournament that belongs to this city.

"You know, U-Save-It sponsors a basketball tournament and this golf tournament,'' Carver said. "A lot of companies talk about doing things in the community, but they take the step forward and do it. I can't say enough about them.''