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Hochman: From John Daly to Vijay Singh, golf greats headed to St. Louis for tourney

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Ascension Charity Classic (copy)

Golf fans line up to watch the Legends Charity Challenge at the Ascension Charity Classic at Norwood Hills Country Club in Jennings on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021. 

The names they’re getting are names.

History in golf spikes.

Bernhard Langer, two-time Masters champion.

Vijay Singh, Masters champ and two-time PGA Championship winner.

And John Daly, who won The Open Championship at St. Andrews and, impossibly, the 1991 PGA Championship as the ninth and final alternate.

“Typically a field gets commitments 6-8 weeks out, but 10-12 weeks out, we had 25 guys already committed,” said Ascension executive vice president Nick Ragone, a tireless worker and proud promoter of the Ascension Charity Classic (Sept. 6-11), the PGA TOUR Champions event in St. Louis. “We’re working on Fred Couples. And Miguel Ángel Jiménez didn’t play last year. … We didn’t have Steve Stricker and Pádraig Harrington because they were captaining the Ryder Cup, which was just after us. And so, we feel like they’ll be in the field.”

The Ascension Charity Classic, in just its second year, has become both a beloved Champions Tour event and respected St. Louis sporting event. In a way, Ragone has written a love letter to St. Louis. The event is fan-friendly with famous faces, it’s fun for all ages, it spotlights the positives of North St. Louis to all of St. Louis and celebrates diversity and charity.

I’m not a devout golf fan — more of a “Caddyshack” and Masters Sunday guy — but I enjoyed the energy of last year’s inaugural Ascension Charity Classic, down to its nail-biting final putts. And what a cool champion in David Toms — the dude exuded emotions seen after majors when he won the trophy. Forgot to mention — he’ll be back this year, too.

“He said this felt like a PGA Tour event, which meant a lot to us,” Ragone said. “You’ve got to remember — these guys are all great players, many major winners, they’re used to 20,000 or 30,000 fans, and they don’t normally get that on Champions Tour. And for them to come here and feel like ‘this reminds me of back when I was playing a tour,’ it validated a lot of what we thought, which is — St. Louis punches above its weight in everything we do sports-wise.

“The weekend at Bellerive (for the 2018 PGA Championship) was the most-attended of all-time. The Cards and Blues are the gold standard for their sports. Now soccer and NASCAR. And immediately our Champions Tour event is one of the biggest markets they play in. And we’re punching above our weight when it comes to attendance to charity and sponsorship because of St. Louis fans. They’re St. Louis proud. They take pride in the fact that we have now a great marquee event.”

We say it a lot, but we can’t say it enough — the charity aspect to this tournament is astounding for our town. More than $1 million was raised for local charities, including Marygrove, Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater St. Louis, and Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis.

And the efforts to grow the game — and make the game available to all — is a beautiful aspect of the Ascension Charity classic. If you haven’t heard — there is going to be a second tournament the same week.

The Advocates Professional Golf Association Tour — referred to as the APGA Tour — was established in 2010. Its mission is to prepare African American and other underrepresented golfers to compete and win at the highest levels of professional golf. On Sept. 8-9, Glen Echo Country Club in North St. Louis County will host The APGA Tour St. Louis-Ascension Classic, presented by Daugherty Business Solutions. There will be shuttles available for St. Louis golf fans to attend both events.

“My goal is for our APGA tournament, and the APGA in general, to be a truly developmental tour where, eventually, the winners get status on the Korn Ferry Tour,” said Ragone of the PGA Tour’s No. 1 developmental tour. “We’re partnering with World Wide Technology to where the winner of our APGA tournament gets a sponsor’s exemption into Mayakoba, their PGA Tour event. Potentially, it’s a game-changer. If you win our APGA classic, get into Mayakoba and catch lightning in a bottle for a week, that’s life-altering.”

There are still seven-plus weeks until the Ascension Charity Classic. More names will pop up in the field. Possibly former major winners or known names from the past (who can still blast). But already, the field has fan favorites. Daly, in particular, with his pronounced St. Louis Cardinal fandom and drives that fly like a home run. Ragone and his team are building something pretty important and with impact.

“I like to joke that the first 18 months of selling the tournament to the community was like pushing a boulder uphill, like a lot of energy,” Ragone recalled. “When I talked to other corporate leaders or civic leaders or the community, there were a lot of nodding heads, they didn’t quite understand the PGA TOUR Champions. …

“And then, after last year’s tournament was so successful — it beat every expectation with attendance and charity — It’s like pushing that same boulder downhill. There’s just a ton of momentum.”

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