News & Opinion

It’s time to realign college stars for Sun Bowl

Davis Love III remembers the free boots. Texan Bob Estes still wears his pair. The Lucchese Boot Co. factory-outlet store remains the first stop when this year’s 30 contestants in the Sun Bowl All-America Golf Classic rolled into El Paso this week for the 43rd rendition. Having attended the tournament last year, I can confirm that eyes grow wide and the best of the best at the collegiate level shop for shoes as if they were Imelda Marcos. 

The Sun Bowl was ahead of its time as a tournament that brought together golf's future stars in an era before teams flew private jets, Texas A&M was in the SEC and Maryland in the Big Ten.

"It was a big deal," said Love, who won in El Paso in 1984 as a North Carolina senior. "I met Duffy Waldorf and guys I'd only read about before."

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COURTESY OF SUN BOWL ASSOCIATION
Texas senior Doug Ghim joins a distinguished list of champions to win the Sun Bowl All-America Golf Classic.

COURTESY OF SUN BOWL ASSOCIATION
Texas senior Doug Ghim joins a distinguished list of champions to win the Sun Bowl All-America Golf Classic.

And it all began with a dream. 

A few weeks after being asked to help conceive a golf tournament for the Sun Bowl, PGA master professional Bill Eschenbrenner, the longtime head pro at El Paso Country Club, woke up in the middle of the night with the idea of showcasing college golf's All-Americans. 

The 79-year-old Eschenbrenner recalled his collegiate days at North Texas when only six golfers were recognized as All-Americans. 

"They were invited to a dinner in New York,” Eschenbrenner said. “That's all there was." 

What if they created a limited-field event to bring together the All-America teams: first, second and third teams, plus honorable mentions? Eschenbrenner received a helping hand from Lee Trevino, a then-El Paso resident who would become a six-time major champion, and then started approaching local sponsors for support.

"It's one thing to come up with an idea. It's another thing for people to get behind it and believe in it," said Trevino, whose name is etched onto the winner's crystal trophy.

The Sun Bowl Collegiate All-America Golf Classic, the only individual golf tournament approved by the NCAA, was born in 1974. All these years later, with title sponsor Andeavor, a San Antonio-based petroleum refiner, added to the name, it touts a tagline of "where legends get started."

This isn't one of those slick slogans lacking in substance. A veritable who's who of professional golf has cut its teeth competing at El Paso Country Club, the city's oldest course, on the western tip of Texas. Tournament alumni have won 641 PGA Tour titles, 50 major championships and earned more than $1.8 billion. Nine of the 12 victorious 2016 U.S. Ryder Cuppers as well as Europe's Thomas Pieters played in El Paso.

Alabama’s Jerry Pate won the inaugural year. With the wind whipping, he shot 7-under 64 in the second round to open a seven-stroke lead. That night, his opponents playfully tossed him into the swimming pool at the apartment complex owned by Trevino, giving birth to a tournament tradition. 

"I didn't understand why they did that to me," Pate said. "They said, 'You're going to win tomorrow, and we'll all be leaving town.' "

That tradition like none other, alas, died the year when a group of players threw Eschenbrenner into the drink. But it had become a tradition for anyone who is anyone in college golf to play in Sun City. Before they were major winners, Love, Tiger Woods, David Duval and most recently Webb Simpson were among the golf talent to taste victory in El Paso. Eschenbrenner remembers a practice in 1995 when Woods, a Stanford sophomore, asked him if it was true that John Daly had driven green at the 305-yard 15th hole.

"I said, 'Yeah, he did.' So, Tiger stepped up and put it on, too. Then I told him, 'Yeah, but Daly did it with a 3-wood,' " Eschenbrenner said. 

Matt Kuchar of Georgia Tech, who won the tournament in 1999, summed up what made the Sun Bowl Classic special to him and the first two generations of participants.

"You'd see two or three top guys, maybe, at an event but not 15 or 20. To have all the best guys in one place was a really big deal back then," he said.

Nowadays, the top golf prospects are identified by junior high school. The best play the circuit of events administered by the American Junior Golf Association and travel the country as pros in training. At age 14, Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth were teammates representing the United States in the Evian Junior Masters in France. Playing opportunities are greater than ever before, but why some of these future stars would pass up the opportunity to go head-to-head in El Paso is beyond me. The eligibility requirements mean it's always going to be a small, elite field, but only 19 players competed last year, with considerably more third-team and honorable-mention All-Americas than in the past.

Part of the problem has been the NCAA's restriction that limits teams’ practices to 144 days during the school year. It put coaches in a tough spot. They had to extend their fall practice season for two weeks, usually to accommodate one of its players. To appease the coaches, for the past four years, the tournament moved up its dates to early November. But that didn't work, either. Players from teams competing in the Kaanapali Classic Collegiate Invitational in Hawaii and the East Lake Cup had scheduling conflicts, and some individuals chose to compete in the Asia-Pacific Amateur with its Masters bid instead.

For the first time, the Sun Bowl All-America Golf Classic doesn't have the word "Collegiate" in its title. To remove itself from the NCAA's headlock, it became an amateur golf event, with invites extended to those in the top 100 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking. In doing so, the Sun Bowl returned to its traditional dates of the Monday-Tuesday before Thanksgiving. The change was well received, with 35 players accepting invites. It was expected to be the largest-ever field until five players dropped out. Still, the field included U.S. Amateur champion Doc Redman from Clemson, three players from NCAA men's team champion Oklahoma, three Walker Cuppers and multiple players from powerhouse lineups at Texas and Vanderbilt.

"It shows the players want to play here if they are freed up," said Bob Kimble, the Sun Bowl's tournament director. "We're still a very desirable event." 

But arguably one that is lacking the star power of its glory days, which is a shame. Texas senior Doug Ghim, the U.S. Amateur runner-up, won this year's Sun Bowl title with a 54-hole aggregate of 18-under 195 (scores: http://bit.ly/2AZDwWY; past champions: http://sunbowlgolf.org/). He was the highest-ranked player in the World Amateur Golf Ranking, at No. 3, and only competitor from the top 10.

Few of the presumptive favorites for the Haskins Award made the trip. No Davis Riley of Alabama (who played last year) nor Collin Morikawa of Cal nor Norman Xiong of Oregon nor Will Zalatoris of Wake Forest. Neither did Illinois stars Nick Hardy and Dylan Meyer. Reigning NCAA individual champion Braden Thornberry from Ole Miss gets a pass because he had a conflict with the PGA Tour's RSM Classic.

"It was a tough decision, but you don't get to play PGA Tour events as an amateur too much," said Thornberry, who won the Jones Cup to earn a sponsor's exemption. "I thought it would benefit me more."

What would benefit the Sun Bowl All-America tournament is a waiver from the NCAA to make the tournament exempt from the practice rule. Such an exemption already exists from the NCAA's rules on competition days. And this doesn't seem like a big ask, given that the NCAA granted such an exemption to the 2-year-old East Lake Cup. That event happens to be owned and operated by Golf Channel, which also holds the rights to the NCAA Division I Men's and Women's Golf Championships.

To give an exemption to the Johnny-come-lately and not to the Sun Bowl is a discredit to the longevity of a college event that has donated more than $750,000 to the schools’ golf programs – every participant’s golf team receives a $1,000 contribution – and lived up to its billing by bringing an all-star lineup together long before that became more commonplace. Efforts are underway to get a similar exemption, but the NCAA doesn't do anything quickly. Which is a shame because the Sun Bowl deserves to be the finale to the fall college golf season.

Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf World and The New York Times. He is the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: golfsdrivingforce@gmail.com; Twitter: @adamschupak