Pro golf returns to Shelby County

Published 3:09 pm Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Alabama coach Nick Saban hits an approach shot onto the 18th green during the Regions Traditions Pro-Am on May 4 at Shoal Creek. (Reporter Photo/Jon Goering)

By WESLEY HALLMAN / Sports Editor

SHOAL CREEK — Sonny Gilmore vividly remembers Arnold Palmer exiting the 18th green during the 1984 PGA Championship at Shoal Creek.

“It was so crowded,” Gilmore recalled. “He stopped and signed autographs for a lot of people, but there were so many he nearly ran up the hill (behind the 18th green) to get off the course.”

Gilmore, a Birmingham resident, returned to Shoal Creek Wednesday for the celebrity pro-am round in advance of the 2011 Regions Tradition, the first major championship at the course in 21 years. Perhaps no one was more pleased than Gilmore to see familiar names walking the fairways May 4.

“I recognize the names out here more than I do on the PGA Tour,” Gilmore said. “I’m so glad it’s back. What a great day. I’m in fine shape now.”

Gilmore, who brought his daughter Cindy Glenn back with him to Shoal Creek, was joined on the course by professional golfers and national celebrities during the pro-am. PGA Champions Tour golfers like Fred Couples, Tom Kite and Fuzzy Zoeller paired with celebrities such as Charles Barkley, Nick Saban and Condoleeza Rice.

Two groups tied for first place in the pro-am tournament. The team of Mark Lacy, Larry Overby, Terry Wheat and Tom Ruszkowski, along with pro Keith Fergus, tied with the team of pro Dana Quigley and his partners George Washington, Jesse Lewis, Clayton Ingram and Steve Fant at the top of the leaderboard.

Charles Barkley jokes with golfer Fuzzy Zoeller on the 17th green during Wednesday's round. (Reporter Photo/Jon Goering)

Nick Saban watches his shot soar down the 18th fairway. (Reporter Photo/Jon Goering)

Condoleeza Rice smiles at the crowd during her round on May 4. (Reporter Photo/Jon Goering)

The celebrities stopped to chat with spectators along the way. Barkley noticed a group of students who bused in to the course for the pro-am on the ninth hole and immediately came over to the group.

“Shouldn’t ya’ll be in school?,” Barkley asked the students.

Shelby County residents Al Del Greco and Jay Barker participated in the Alabama vs. Auburn putting challenge at the Shoal Creek practice green Wednesday. Del Greco, who played football at Auburn, and Barker, who played football at Alabama, are co-hosts on WJOX’s “The Opening Drive.” The putting challenge also featured Auburn football coach Gene Chizik and Alabama basketball coach Anthony Grant.

Alabama won the putting challenge.

Del Greco said he expects a much larger crowd than the one that showed up at the annual PGA Champions Tour tournament the past few years at Greystone Golf and Country Club and Robert Trent Jones’ Ross Bridge due to the fact that it’s a major championship.

“The field is incredible,” Del Greco said. “I’m sure people will support it.”

Tom Watson chats following his round on at Shoal Creek on May 4. (Reporter Photo/Jon Goering)

Fred Couples hits a shot on the 18th hole during Wednesday's round. (Reporter Photo/Jon Goering)

Del Greco said it’s also an opportunity for Shoal Creek to be back in the spotlight after hosting the 1984 and 1990 PGA Championships.

“It’s still a great course,” Del Greco said. “I think people kind of lost track of it.”

Barker said he believes the community is excited about the return of a major championship tournament to Shelby County.

“It’s huge for us to get recognition nationally,” Barker said. “People here love the game of golf. Hopefully people recognize this is like the Masters of the PGA Champions Tour.”

Professional golfer John Cook, who will tee off May 4 at 11:42 a.m., said he’s eager to get the chance to play Shoal Creek once again after playing in a PGA Championship at the course.

“It’s sure nice to be back in Birmingham playing Shoal Creek,” Cook said. “This is a major championship golf course.”

The tournament gets underway Thursday at 7:40 a.m. when Doug Tewell, Don Pooley and Sandy Lyle tee off on the first hole.

Check back for complete coverage each day during the 2011 Regions Tradition.

Condoleeza Rice hits out of the sand at the 18th hole during the Regions Pro-Am on May 4 at Shoal Creek. (Reporter Photo/Jon Goering)