EL PASO, Texas — PGA master professional Bill Eschenbrenner had a dream.
A few weeks after being asked to help conceive a golf tournament by organizers of the Sun Bowl, he woke up in the middle of the night with the idea of showcasing college golf’s All-Americans.
Thus, the Sun Bowl College All-America Golf Classic, the only individual golf tournament approved by the NCAA, was born in 1974. All these years later, with title sponsor Western Refining added to the name, it remains one of college golf’s most prestigious events and 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 edge of Texas.
One of those future stars, Vanderbilt sophomore Will Gordon wondered just how long this star-studded event had been in existence. Gordon raised an eyebrow when told he’d be competing in the 42nd edition. “Here’s the guy who can tell you all about it,” said tournament chairman Gary Hanson. “He founded it.”
And with that the 78-year-old Eschenbrenner, the 52nd recipient of the PGA Professional of the Year Award, broke into a history lesson for the youngsters. He hearkened back to his days as a collegiate player at University of North Texas when only six golfers were recognized as All-Americans.
“They were invited to a dinner in New York. That’s all there was,” Eschenbrenner said.
What if they created a limited-field event to bring together the All-America teams (first, second and third team, as well as honorable mention All-America underclassmen who were medalists in their respective conferences)? Eschenbrenner received a helping hand from none other than Lee Trevino, the 2013 PGA Distinguished Service Award winner, 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 on the winner’s crystal trophy.
The Sun Bowl organizes 19 sporting events, none bigger than the annual Hyundai Sun Bowl college football bowl game in late December, but the golf competition is “the most fun,” said Sun Bowl Association executive director Bernie Olivas.
When Southern California’s Rico Hoey was asked why he was back for the third time, he replied simply, “I just love this place.”
So did Jerry Pate, who won the inaugural year. With the wind whipping, he shot 64 in the second round to open a seven-stroke lead. That night, his opponents playfully tossed him in 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 recalled. “They said, ‘You’re going to win tomorrow and we’ll all be leaving town.’ ”
That tradition like none other, alas, died the year a group of players threw Eschenbrenner in the drink. But it’s become a tradition for anyone who is anyone in college golf to play in Sun City. Before they were major winners, Tiger Woods, Davis Love III, David Duval and most recently Webb Simpson were among a who’s who of golf talent to taste victory in El Paso. Eschenbrenner remembers standing on the 16th tee during a practice in 1995 when Woods asked him if it was true that John Daly had driven the 15th green.
“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 recalled.
With the pressure on the line, Woods drove the green with 3-wood during the final round. He had to hole a 20-foot birdie putt at the final hole to force a playoff. He canned it and then made another 20-foot putt on the first playoff hole to seal the victory. It was yet another sign of his future success.
“He always did pull it out of a hat,” said Eschenbrenner.
In all, tournament alumni have won 641 PGA Tour titles, 50 major championships -12 of which have been the Wanamaker Trophy- and earned more than $1.8 billion.
“I get pretty emotional when I see one of our players win major tournaments on the PGA Tour,” Eschenbrenner said.
On Nov. 13, Sam Burns joined an exclusive fraternity as champion of the All-America Golf Classic. The LSU sophomore, who showed his promise by winning the 2014 PGA Junior Championship, closed with a 66 en route to a 54-hole total of 12-under par 201 and a three-stroke victory over Southern Cal’s Justin Suh.
“I’d love to come back for 20 more years to play,” Burns said. “I am really honored to play in this tournament. From the first day I got here, I felt extremely welcomed.”
Will Burns be the next success story at the next level or will it be one of the other 18 competitors? Only time will tell but history suggests this truly is where legends get started.
“We’re actually looking at the next major winners,” Trevino said. “These are the kids who are going to win these tournaments. It’s happened in the past and it’s going to happen in the future.”