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Pro-am can be ‘once-in-a-lifetime opportunity’

If Doug Garner, sales and charity coordinator for the 2008 Viking Classic, sounded a bit giddy, he had every reason to be.

Looking back at a busy Annandale Golf Club week where the best PGA Tour event ever held in Mississippi was staged, there was much to appreciate.

It had a great title sponsor in Viking and terrific partners in Entergy, CN, the Mississippi Development Authority and BankPlus. Postcard-pretty weather engulfed the entire week. A tour date opposite the Ryder Cup and after an unusual tour break helped ensure a quality field full of both seasoned veterans and up-and-coming stars of the future. Crowds were large, maybe the biggest ever, and the easy-to-negotiate course was immaculate. A dramatic ending that found Will MacKenzie grinning broadly as he embraced the championship prize added a delightful finish.

Hundreds of volunteers shared their community pride. Dozens of worthy charities and causes benefited from the generosity of the overall extravaganza. And the blend of high level competition and star-studded culinary demonstrations with a dose of heavy Southern hospitality expanded a quality-run professional golf tournament into a weekend of fun and excitement for anyone who dared to take part.

Some aspiring wannabes even shared the brightest of spotlights.

That’s because golf, known for all its honor and tradition, adds a touch of adventure unlike any other sport. It’s called the pro-am and the BankPlus-sponsored affair linked 52 of the pros with 208 men and women of various skills and ability for 18 holes of a truly unique experience.

“Think about that,” Garner admitted. “You can’t go out there and pass the ball with Peyton Manning. You can’t shoot hoops with Michael Jordan. But you can walk the fairways and play alongside the best of the world’s golfers. You can talk with them, get to really know them and develop a relationship with them. That’s a great experience, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a day to really remember.”

Participants paid $3,000 apiece for the chance to play Wednesday, receiving a tee gift bag that included a small Viking appliance, invitations to a couple of parties, tickets, clubhouse passes, preferred parking privileges, a commemorative plaque photo and enough memories to last, embellished or not, forever.

Just ask Gabe Baldwin, first vice president of mortgage leaning at BankPlus and a talented player in his own right.

His pro-am partner was Woody Austin, the longtime journeyman whose 2007 tour performance saw him finish second to Tiger Woods in the PGA Championship at Tulsa’s Southern Hills, earn nearly $3 million in earnings, catapult onto the prestigious President’s Cup team and become a familiar face on weekly televised tournaments.

Like many fans, Baldwin acknowledged the 44-year-old Austin, a University of Miami graduate who has made the cut in 252 of his 421 tour starts and will likely surpass the $13-million mark in career winnings this week, was good but assumed, admittedly, also a little wacky.

That’s because he came across on TV as emotional, animated and quick-triggered. That he still has the 1995 Buick Riviera (it has only 37,000 miles on it) he received as part of the winner’s package at the Buick Open only adds to his quirky reputation. And his now trademark bright, rather unconventional, colorful, often flowery, shirts also seemed to set him apart.

Eighteen holes of togetherness later, Baldwin not only changed his mind, he has a new friend.

“We couldn’t have had a better day,” he said. “He’s just a fun-loving guy. It was entertaining. He joked and cut up with us, was as much a part of the give-and-take as any of us and treated us as if we were part of his regular Saturday morning group. We got to hear all of his President’s Cup stories and every now and then we realized that hey, this guy plays a lot with Tiger Woods. How special is that? I mean, that’s kinda neat. So now, I’m a big Woody Austin fan.”

Their team (Baldwin, Bob Germany, Vic Wyatt and Ken Jones) didn’t win the pro-am, shooting a 12-under 60 that was five shots off the low score while Austin, Baldwin suggested, probably shot around par. “He didn’t waste any of his good shots on Wednesday,” his partner chuckled, adding, “and he probably played with a different level of concentration.”

None of which mattered, of course.

Baldwin and his teammates left feeling like winners. Just like Garner. And just like everyone who shared in Annandale’s special week.

Contact MBJ editor/publisher Ed Darling at ed.darling@msbusiness.com.

About Ed Darling

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