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A Century of Involvement


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ERNIE WRIGHT’S FIRST GLIMPSE of the Colina Park golf course is set both in memory and articulation. “To call it a cow pasture would have been an insult to the cows,” he says. “In City Heights at that time, you could call it representative of the neighborhood.”

Wright had escaped streets of similar description and eventually located a home on the offensive line of the original Los Angeles Chargers. The team’s move to San Diego brought a young, caring individual to the city—one who soon became immersed in a project that gradually would transform a property and numerous lives.

“I’d been approached about starting a caddy program for inner-city kids,” Wright says. “But I was more interested in having them become interested in playing golf. What really sparked that effort was the availability of Colina Park. City Hall people basically said, ‘If you’re crazy enough to take that on, it’s yours.’ ”

With help from his friends and the clout a professional athlete carries in the community, Wright not only took on Colina Park, he saw it become a model nine-hole course for his Pro Kids Academy—the proving ground he’d envisioned for young would-be, inner-city golfers.

Then one day, Sol Price, founder of Price Club and an academy supporter, said to Wright: “Why would you teach these kids to play a game most of them won’t be able to afford when they’re grown?” Out of that challenge came the idea for a modern, computerized learning center at Pro Kids Academy—one that provides youngsters from desperate circumstances with the type of educational opportunities that can transform destinies.

Funding for Pro Kids comes from a variety of sources, but significant amounts have been contributed by the Century Club, a local nonprofit corporation formed in 1961 to administer and promote the city’s annual PGA Tour event—then known as the San Diego Open. Although the tournament’s name and sponsors have been chameleon-like in years since, what now is called the Buick Invitational has long been one of the area’s more generous benefactors —with funding of youth-related activities a primary target.

The Century Club was so-named because individual memberships initially were priced at $100 each. That figure has risen to $300, but the fee remains minuscule when compared to the commitment of time, energy and sales responsibility demanded of members. Currently there are 68 thoroughly screened, active members, including President Bill Potter, who now lives near Sun Valley, Idaho, but spends one week each month in San Diego attending to Century Club business.

Potter is dedicated to expanding his organization’s philanthropic thrust. All profits from the tournament are distributed to charities; some 200 shared in the record $1,175,140 raised by last year’s Buick Invitational. Potter’s vision, though, is to measurably increase the amount by incorporating several fund-raising events during what he sees as “a nine-day window of opportunity before and during the tournament.”

Pro Kids is one of two local charities to benefit from one of Potter’s innovations this month. The inaugural “Diamond in the Rough” gala, featuring Grammy Award–winner Trisha Yearwood in concert, takes place January 21 at the Manchester Grand Hyatt—with profits split between Pro Kids and Monarch School, a visionary downtown school that serves homeless, atrisk students.

“The Century Club has been a tremendous partner of ours, almost since the beginning,” says Marty Remmell, executive director of Pro Kids Academy. “A pairings party held last year produced $93,750 for us, and there’s a potential, through the gala, of doubling that.”

The Boys and Girls Clubs of San Dieguito—another group that has benefited from longterm Century Club support— also should see its support rise, and at a critical time. Although there are 14 county locations from Encinitas to La Jolla, plans are to share funds this year with 17 Gulf Coast clubs devastated by the autumn hurricanes.

“We know of four that were totally destroyed in New Orleans,” says Keith Padgett, the San Dieguito club’s executive director. “Others were hit in Biloxi, Mississippi; Mobile, Alabama; and also one at Keesler Air Force Base. We’re serving 12,000 kids a year here, but there are 20,000 down there who need any kind of help they can get.”

Two added attractions with Buick Invitational connections should assist. One is the “Tiger Hunt,” a January 3 drawing in which 1,000 tickets at $250 each are being offered; first prize is a round of golf with Tiger Woods.

The other is a transplant of a traditional event. For some years, the San Dieguito club has held a fund-raising tournament at a North County course—while paying for the privilege. This winter, the Century Club has made the Torrey Pines North Course available on the final day of the Buick Invitational, at no cost.

“We can send out 144 golfers, who will play in the same conditions pros did earlier in the week,” says Keith Padgett. “They can compare their scores with the pros, then go over to the South Course and watch the final round of the tournament.

“It’s a great opportunity for us. I’m seeing Bill Potter as a very dynamic guy.”

In its original charter, the Century Club included a provision pledging financial support for the San Diego County Junior Golf Association, and that commitment has only strengthened over time—to a point where it’s now under the club’s administrative control. And the city’s junior program consistently uses leader boards at major professional events to advertise its strength through its graduates—Phil Mickelson, Craig Stadler, Meg Mellon, Scott Simpson, Dennis Paulson, Pat Perez, on and on.

THE CENTURY CLUB and its tournament have been major benefactors for extracurricular programs at area high schools. It all began as a “Save Our Sports” (SOS) concept, with discounted tickets for the golf tournament released to area schools for sale by athletes. To satisfy bookkeeping procedures, funds from those sales were returned to the Century Club, which then wrote checks to each school.

“My favorite story about that involves Valhalla,” says Century Club executive director Tom Wilson. “They had no lights for their football field, so they’d never had a home game. About five years ago, the principal gave two of our tickets to every student to sell. They raised $32,000 in that manner, and corrected their problem.”

Dennis Ackerman, local spokesman for the California Interscholastic Federation, describes the SOS venture as “the best fund-raising program in the state of California for high school sports.”

There’s been one adjustment. “Two years ago, we encouraged participants to include all extracurricular activities— band, art, drama, et cetera,” says Wilson. “So the program now is called ‘Support Our Schools.’ ”

Under one heading or another, Century Club contributions over the last 11 years have totaled $4.2 million.

When a club committee examines the numerous appeals for funds each year, an educational component carries extra weight. Monarch School, for example, operates under the auspices of the San Diego Office of Education, which supplies only 40 percent of its funding.

Consider these additional percentages: 100 percent of Monarch’s students are below the poverty level. More than 25 percent live in local shelters. Another 30 percent live in single rooms, cars or on the streets. Monarch’s student capacity is 135, a small portion of the estimated 2,200 children who live in similar circumstances throughout San Diego County. This means those who are admitted are both fortunate and committed to a better life.

It also helps explain why Paula Kelly, a spokesperson for the school, has a trace of awe in her delivery when she says, “We had 11 graduating seniors this past year, and all are in college. They’re such heroes.”

For having a small hand in that, the Century Club itself deserves a hand.

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