HOOVER, Ala. — It was just before 9 a.m., and the gallery waited in anticipation. People had been gathering for a while at the first tee of the PGA Regions Tradition for Greystone Golf & EOountry Club just to watch one person especially tee off at this year’s Pro-Am.
They applauded Steve Stricker, the PGA champions pro in the final group of the morning, plus former University of Alabama basketball player and Houston Rockets coach assistant coach T.R. Dunn. But the one they wanted to see is considered the true legend in these parts, Crimson Tide football coach Nick Saban.
Like usual, he’s the star attraction.
“You want me to get in that?” Saban said about the swarm of gathered reporters, which PGA officials commonly refer to as a pre-round media scrum. If the coach was claustrophobic, he didn’t let it show before the camera lights.
For those who live elsewhere, this isn’t just a golf tournament. Granted, it’s one of the majors for the Champions Tour and has an economic impact of more than $25 million to the greater Birmingham area. It’s also the kind of event that helps define a community.
People want to be seen here. Former “American Idol” winner Taylor Hicks has been a regular fixture for years, but this is Alabama. Any discussion about A-list celebrities has to begin with former athletes and coaches.
“It’s definitely a social event and then a major golf championship,” said Gene Hallman, CEO of Bruno Event Team. “The golfers like that. They’re entertainers and they like to perform in front of big crowds. They don’t have Pro-Am crowds like this like anywhere else. They don’t get to play with celebrities like this anywhere else. They enjoy it.”
With the likes of Heisman Trophy winners Bo Jackson and Mark Ingram Jr. walking the course, fans will show up with football helmets, and it’s not because they’re concerned about former Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy’s slice.
In between holes is great place to get something signed, and maybe exchange a few words with someone they might otherwise only see on television.
“We started the event in ’92,” Hallman said. “In ’93 we had Charles Barkley play in the pro-am with Chi Chi Rodriguez, and the crowds were huge, and we went, ‘Wow. We’re on to something.’”
In 1994, Michael Jordan was making his famous attempt to play baseball and was with the Birmingham Barons. Jordan and Barkley played together and the Pro-Am suddenly was something much larger.
Radio shows started broadcasting live from the event, and this year they’ve been joined by Paul Finebaum on the SEC Network.
Saban’s galleries haven’t quite equaled Jordan’s, but they’re close and he plays in the Pro-Am every year. The biggest tournament officials have ever seen was the one following Joe Namath when he played one year.
Consequently, numerous SEC football coaches make sure their calendar is clear on this day, and they all attract fans wearing everything from Auburn hats to Mississippi State t-shirts. In addition to helping raise more than $1 million for charities last year, with the most going to Children’s of Alabama, it’s good exposure.
“First of all it’s for charity,” said Georgia head coach and former Saban assistant Kirby Smart, “a chance to give back to the community, the people who support our game. The SEC is such a passionate territory for football.
“It promotes our game.”
While Smart was finishing up his turn with reporters at approximately 8:20 a.m., sirens could be heard in the distance. It wasn’t an emergency, rather Saban’s arrival. He was given an escort of eight police officers after making an earlier appearance.
For those who remember the ads about the Army doing more by 9 a.m. than most people do in a day, Saban’s an exception. While most coaches talk about relaxing and this being the offseason, he doesn’t slow down. Until going on vacation in June, his schedule remains packed, with things constantly being wedged in.
For example, when Alabama softball coach Patrick Murphy recently recalled the story about Saban meeting with pitcher Alexis Osorio as a recruit, he was told the coach had 12 minutes available. Not 10 or 15, but 12.
Similarly, he recently met with Crimson Tide gymnastics team just before the NCAA Championships, and the softball team as it entered the crucial part of its season.
“He talked about the process a lot,” senior softball player Chandler Dare predictably said.
But it all contributes to the coach having rock-star status, not only in Tuscaloosa but at events like this. Showing no signs of slowing down, the 65-year-old attracts fans and reporters everywhere he’s available, even if it’s just for five minutes like Wednesday morning.
“What’s the best round of golf you’ve ever played?” was the first question Saban fielded from a reporter after changing into his golf clothes. When done with the media he took an abbreviated turn on the driving range and quickly practiced his putting before making his marquee tee time.
“You never see anything like that,” Champions media director Stewart Moore said about the reporters. “When John Daly made his debut on our tour a year ago, and he’s probably the most popular player out here, our scrum in Houston was probably a third of that.